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THE SECRET OF 
THE OLD MASTERS 



THE SECRET OF 
THE OLD MASTERS 

By 
ALBERT ABENDSCHEIN 




D. APPLETON AND COMPANY 

NEW YORK 

1909 



COPYRIGHT, 1906, BY 
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY 



PuWshed November, 1906 



PEEFACE 



IN this little book I have undertaken to lay 
before the reader the fruits of the labor of 
twenty-five years. As soon as I could under- 
stand and appreciate the splendors of the 
Grand Masters of painting, I had begun to 
form a determination to discover the techni- 
cal principles, methods, and material that en- 
abled the Masters to produce their work. 
Years ago, I never had any real satisfaction 
when I did paint a fairly good study head, 
because I felt instinctively that it was in no 
sense related to the technic of the Masters. 
Therefore, the search for the Masters' technic 
became for me an all-absorbing life work to 
the exclusion of all else. This life work was 
more or less an injury and loss to me in many 
ways. On the other hand it had many 
v 



PREFACE 

compensating pleasures. I had said to my- 
self in the beginning: " If I can only paint 
one head with the Old Masters' technic I 
shall be satisfied." Had I known how long 
it would take me to solve the problem, I cer- 
tainly would not have attempted it, but as the 
years passed I felt less like giving up than 
I might have at the beginning. As I pro- 
ceeded on my way in the search I met many 
that had lost themselves, or fallen by the 
wayside. I feel now that I ought to make 
public my theories and conclusions, so that 
the younger and stronger enthusiast may 
make fuller use of my discovery of the 
" Masters' Venetian Secrets." He will be 
better armed to fight his battles, hard enough 
in any event without this lifelong technical 
thorn in his side. 

The Old Masters' technic always has been 
enveloped in mystery and confusion. I think 
I have brought some order out of the con- 
fusion and considerable light to bear upon 
the mystery. I do not presume to tell the 
vi 



PREFACE 

reader how he shall paint, but I am glad to be 
able with some show of authority, as I rest 
somewhat spent by the wayside, to point out 
to him in which direction the Masters have 
gone over the horizon. Should anything in 
this book bring success, lighten labor, make 
results more beautiful, certain, and perma- 
nent, then I shall not have labored in vain. 

A. A. 



Vll 



CONTENTS 



I. INTRODUCTION: Decay of paintings, artist 
blamable for decay Technical copies of 
the Masters 1 

II. THE MYSTERY: Varnish painting Varnish 
and wax or encaustic painting Resins 
or gums Copal Turpentine, spike oil, 
and benzin Petroleum Oil . . .18 

III. THE THREE OILS: Oil and resin or magilp 
Oil alone as the medium? Canvas or 
grounds Modern canvas Absorbent 
canvas 36 

IV. ABSORBENT GROUND VERSUS NONABSORB- 
ENT: Varnish grounds The pure white 
ground with the veil or stain ... 57 

V. TEMPERA 67 

VI. THE "VENETIAN SECRET": "DEAD COL- 
OR," or FIRST PAINTINO FOR FLESH . 77 

VII. THREE COLORS: Titian 90 

VIII. TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED: Paul 

Veronese Rubens and Van Dyck . 102 
ix 



CONTENTS 

CHAPTER PAGE 

IX. THE METHOD INVISIBLE: Sir Joshua Rey- 
nolds Turner Etty . . . .117 

X. THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE . .134 

XI. THE EVIDENCE 151 

XII. SUMMARY: Colors ...... 162 

XIII. DURABLE COLORS: Testing colors . .177 

XIV. RETOUCHING AND FINAL VARNISH: The 
white palette General notes Conclu- 
sion . 190 



THE SECRET OF THE 
OLD MASTERS 



CHAPTER I 

INTRODUCTION 

IN reference to the Old Master's technic, 
in his book the " Graphic Arts," edition of 
1886, Hamerton says: " It is wonderful that 
so little should be known, but it is the more 
wonderful since eyewitnesses have positively 
attempted to give an account of the Venetian 
methods and stopped short before their tale 
was fully told, and that neither from inabil- 
ity nor unwillingness to tell all, but simply 
because they did not foresee what we should 
care to know about, or else took it for granted 
that we should be inevitably acquainted with 
all that belonged to the common practice 
of the time." Hamerton thus confesses his 
1 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

lack of knowledge on a subject that formed 
the greater part of his book. It further indi- 
cates the general knowledge among artists in 
England and on the Continent up to that 
time. 

In January, 1891, the following little de- 
spairing note came to a New York paper 
from Paris, the greatest productive center of 
paintings in the world: " The members of 
the French Society of Artists are pondering 
upon a proposed abandonment of oil colors 
and brushes in favor of some more permanent 
mediums of preserving their works for pos- 
terity. Detaille, Bouguereau, Robert Fleury, 
Vibert, Saint-Pierre form a committee of 
investigation. One expert, Gabriel Deneux, 
proposes a system of encaustic painting by 
which hot irons would be used instead of 
brushes. The work, after being branded in- 
stead of painted, would have to be treated 
chemically. The conservative painters, how- 
ever, hope that some improvement may be 
attained in the mixture of colors in which 
2 



INTRODUCTION 

such a radical innovation as cautery will not 
be resorted to." This indicates plainly that 
the hest-known artists and teachers in Paris 
at that time (1891) were somewhat at a 
loss as to how to paint soundly or durably. 
They were all fine artists and painters, but 
they were aware that their system was some- 
how not that of the Masters. Then, in 1893, 
Vibert published his book, " La Science de 
la Peinture," in which resin with petroleum 
is announced as the true medium for painting 
(of which more anon). Again, in April, 1904, 
we have this anent some work exhibited in the 
Salon : ' ' For some time past, X, like so 
many of the greatest living painters, has been 
dissatisfied with modern methods of tech- 
nic. He argues, as I have heard other 
great painters argue, that the art of painting 
has been lost; that while the artistic instinct 
and the intellect of the painter are just as 
great and keen as ever, he is no longer in pos- 
session of the same means as the Old Masters. 
He does not prepare his canvas in the same 
3 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

way, nor build up his pictures as they did. 
He knows well enough what he is aiming at, 
but not how to attain the end by methods 
which are at once solid, masterly, and lasting. 
A profound study, a minute technical dissec- 
tion, as it were, of the greatest works at the 
Louvre, have revealed secrets to X which have 
made him the pioneer of the most brilliant 
modern retreat to the ideals of painting pur- 
sued by such giants as Rubens, Velasquez, and 
Franz Hals. . . . The actual painting is that 
of the Old Masters ... a thin ' jus de cou- 
leur ' over an elaborately developed ' grisaille. ' 
. . . But Rubens has merely guided X 's brush. 
There is no slavish imitation in the young 
French master's work." These quotations 
can give but a faint hint of the number of 
men who have knocked on the door of the 
Old Masters' painting room to be admitted 
to their technical secrets. Through the cen- 
turies there have been a few admitted, hardly 
more than a dozen perhaps. And so every 
earnest art student, if the Old Masters' great 
4 



INTRODUCTION 

work has any influence on him whatever, in 
time is confronted with the problems purely 
of technic, apart from the problems of draw- 
ing, painting, and composition. The selec- 
tion and use of colors, logical methods, me- 
diums, varnishes, and grounds to paint on 
remain perplexing questions even to eminent 
artists, as we have seen. Considering the 
enormous amount of painting done it is amaz- 
ing that so little is known on this subject. 
Drawing, painting, and composition are, in 
modern times, freely taught in many coun- 
tries, but I have never heard of the real tech- 
nic of oil painting being taught anywhere. 
Every student and artist picks up his knowl- 
edge about the technic of his art wherever 
and however he can. It is mostly chance, 
guesswork, a friendly hint and some experi- 
ence that finally weds him to some manner of 
painting, some favored colors, and some fav- 
ored canvas. It is only within a few years 
that the quality and durability of colors has 
become generally questioned, and some dis- 
5 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

crimination in their use become evident on 
the part of artists. Still, this discrimination 
has not advanced much beyond the accept- 
ance of the ochres and the rejection of aniline 
colors, most artists knowing enough not to 
use them when they know them to be such. 
Every new and loudly heralded make of 
material is hopefully taken up and tried, and 
as sadly laid away again, while the same old 
feeling of uncertainty and perplexity re- 
mains. If any artists have hit upon what 
they considered the real and only technic, 
they have, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, kept it 
carefully secret. I once asked a friend in 
Munich, who had many years of experience 
in painting, what medium or vehicle he used 
to dilute the colors on the palette, and he 
said, " balsam copaiba, spike oil, with a little 
wax melted in," adding the usual injunction, 
" don't tell anyone." I thought at the time 
the injunction showed a narrow spirit I had 
heard it before, and have often since, but 
when I found by my own experience that it 
6 



INTRODUCTION 

took a great deal of time and study to invent 
useful and beneficent things, I became some- 
what reconciled to the idea. 

The one distressing thing about my search 
for the true technic of oil painting was, that 
even with an exhaustive amount of experi- 
menting and with notebooks, it was impossi- 
ble to come to any positive conclusion without 
the necessary lapse of considerable time. 
And if the reader will have the patience to 
follow me through this little book, I hope to 
prove to him beyond the shadow of a doubt 
that the conclusions I have arrived at are 
the only logical ones, and that the principles 
of the process described are those of the 
" Grand Old Masters " and no others! I 
am very well aware that many more or less 
eminent men have in the last three and a half 
centuries sought for and claimed to have dis- 
covered this precious process; that many 
theories other than the ones herein contained 
have been advanced by able artists. Their 
theories have been for a time, to a great ex- 
2 7 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

tent, accepted, but in no case have such 
theories been sustained by any conclusive 
evidence, proof, or facts that could be ac- 
cepted by any logical mind. The theories 
were all more or less built up on dogmatic 
assertions. Some inspiration like the petro- 
leum theory would be seized, and an attempt 
made to fit it in with practice. It would be 
asserted that the Venetians painted with 
petroleum, because a vague tradition says 
Correggio once made a varnish of it! The 
great difficulties in the search lay in the 
strange fact that an artist may have found 
a part of the principles governing the true 
technic, and yet not know it positively until 
he had proved it, and by elimination dis- 
proved all theories that came in conflict with 
it. This in course of time even necessitated 
going over the same ground, and many times 
experimenting around a circle back to the 
starting point, and in my case has covered a 
period of twenty-five years. Many times I 
was " stuck/' to use one of Thomas A. Ed- 
8 



INTRODUCTION 

ison's expressions, not knowing which way to 
turn to go forward, feeling that the labor of 
years was thrown away. Then I would try 
to dismiss the whole subject from my mind 
for a short time, to find at the end that a new 
path was revealed that led to final success. 
The very simplicity of the problem made it 
so baffling, like looking for an elephant where 
a mouse should have been expected. One of 
the great stumbling-blocks to a quick solution 
of the problem was the well-nigh universally 
known fact among artists that oil in a picture 
darkens and yellows it to the verge of de- 
struction. No one seemed to be able or will- 
ing to give any help or advice. Some years 
ago I heard one prominent artist say that 
" experimenting was dangerous." His work 
painted at that time has since reached the 
dark yellow, and some the brown, stage, all 
its former charm having vanished. Other 
capable artists when questioned, revealed on 
this subject the ignorance and innocence of 
children. I even knew of a French painter, 
9 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

a former " Prix de Rome " pupil painting a 
picture with colors mixed with vaseline ! But 
it did not take him long to discover how unwise 
this was, for his work never dried, and had to 
be repainted. And of other painters using 
equally silly material, there are many. Chem- 
ists have been appealed to from time to time, 
but, excepting in regard to a few colors, have 
not been able to help us out. The cause of this 
was not far to seek, since they were not artists 
and could not know or understand our wants ; 
but, on the other hand, the artists did not seem 
to solve the problem either. 

Without going into the history of oil paint- 
ing here, let us ask, What is the logical course 
to follow in establishing true oil-painting prin- 
ciples ? It is obvious that the best and oldest 
we know of in oil painting must be the sub- 
ject of our investigations and should guide us, 
and that best must have stood the test of time, 
not of fifty or one hundred years, but of cen- 
turies ; the older the better, provided the tech- 
nic is also combined with excellent drawing 
10 



INTRODUCTION 

and fine coloring. Therefore, as we look back 
in the dim past, the works of the Grand Old 
Masters Titian, Paul Veronese, Velasquez, 
Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds must be the 
source to which we must travel to gain knowl- 
edge. There are a few others who belong to 
this grand company, but only those will be re- 
ferred to who will best serve our present pur- 
pose. Now we must bear in mind that most 
of those men during their lives had two or 
more ways of painting, a fact apparent even to 
the unprofessional eye of the art historians. 
Even the Masters had to go through a period 
of evolution. We must choose that which is 
of undoubted authenticity and has necessarily 
stood the test of time. This means that it 
was interesting and attractive enough to have 
escaped the attic, museum cellar, or scrap 
heap, and, last and most important reason for 
our purpose, stood the test of atmospheric 
changes light and darkness, removal from 
place to place, revarnishings, etc.; and fur- 
ther, its very existence proving that at its 
11 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

birth each work had a sound physical con- 
stitution. 

The causes of decay of oil paintings are 

very numerous. Many are foredoomed to early 

decay before they leave the artist 's easel, 

Decay of because, although the artist may have 
Paintings 

been a great artist, he may not have 

been an equally great craftsman, and exer- 
cised the wisdom and care necessary for the 
production of great and lasting work. Some 
modern painters have affected to despise any 
discrimination in the selection of materials and 
method as being inartistic and beneath them. 
And when artists do seek for light on technical 
matters, they soon find, as did Sir Joshua 
Reynolds, that there is no one who can teach 
them, and so they go a short and uncertain 
distance in what seems an endless and un- 
certain path of experimenting. They soon sat- 
isfy themselves with one or two formulas that 
seem to work well, and with that they are apt 
to remain content, and keep on producing 
paintings attractive enough at the time they 
12 



INTRODUCTION 

leave the easel, but soon becoming uninterest- 
ing, and forming part of that great procession 
going ' ' down and out. ' ' 

Some of the causes of decay in paintings for 
which the artist can be blamed are, first, an 

unsound canvas ground, one improperly 
Artist 
Blamable made. On such a canvas the greatest 

r ecay g en j us ' s W0 rk is bound soon to yellow, 
blacken, crack or peel off from the ground and 
from the threads. Without mentioning a poor 
quality of linen, the principal cause of the 
ground peeling from the linen threads is in- 
ferior glue or improper application thereof to 
the linen. Upon decomposition this causes the 
peeling off of the ground, exposing the threads. 
Next the ground itself, the surface the artist 
puts his work on, may lack every essential of 
permanence or even of logical use. (On this 
subject of grounds I will have more to say 
later.) The Old Masters were in this, not only 
logical, but scientific as well, nothing being 
left to chance or haphazard. Method and 
order were instinctive, and the phrase " any 
13 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

old thing is good enough to paint on, ' ' so fre- 
quently heard from modern artists, would to 
them have been a species of artistic heresy, a 
ground being to them fully as important as 
the painting itself, not merely from the view 
point of permanence, but as a factor in the 
completed picture. This was particularly the 
case with Rubens, the greatest of all technical 
painters, and his equally great pupil, Van 
Dyck. When we leave the ground to consider 
causes of decay or deterioration, we enter a 
boundless field. Let me enumerate just a few. 
First, insufficient drying of first sketches or 
paintings, and the same for second or any suc- 
ceeding paintings. I will show later how im- 
portant this appeared to the Masters. Second, 
absurd mediums, vehicles, or combinations in 
which there could be no chemical union; un- 
clean, stale paints, wax, adulterations, dryers, 
magilps, etc., were all a fruitful cause of dete- 
rioration. The commonest of all causes of de- 
terioration is a medium made up of two, three, 
and even four or more different materials, 



INTRODUCTION 

where one of them is sure to destroy the effect 
intended, in time, and if the other two or three 
should in themselves carry no injurious con- 
sequences, their combination is sure to bring 
about final destruction. And furthermore, 
the immediate effect with such combinations 
is rather attractive, and so such pernicious 
concoctions make lifelong slaves of some art- 
ists, and they never get out of the habit of 
using them. During a period of more than 
twenty-five years I have experimented with 
very many of them, and it would not serve 
any good purpose to go over them all here. 
Suffice it to say that the artist is to blame in 
nearly all cases for the darkening, excessive 
yellowing, cracking, peeling, and premature 
decay of his painting. Owners of fine oil 
paintings, as a rule, take tolerably good care 
of them, but when they begin to darken they 
are apt to go to the restorer, or even the 
framemaker (!), and to have them clean the 
painting, which means a kick down the hill for 
bad ones, and a start downward for good ones 
15 



that may have only a little ordinary grime on 
them through neglect. There are few artists 
who prepare their own canvas and grind their 
own colors. The paints and canvas ordinarily 
used are at the present time made by large 
firms, and sold as other merchandise. This is 
a very convenient proceeding for the modern 
artist, but it produces bad pictures in most 
instances. 

The Old Masters had the knowledge, ex- 
perience, and wisdom to produce great work, 

considered from every standpoint, and it 
Technical 

Copies of is necessary in establishing, or rather 
1 reestablishing, a sound system to study 
their work. Many great artists have studied 
the Old Masters for technical guidance, and 
have done so by making copies, reproducing, 
not the aspect alone, but the method and the 
" handling," ground or surface on which the 
work is produced, and character of material 
throughout. Thus Velasquez himself copied 
Tintoretto and Paul Veronese, and it is well 
known that Rubens and Van Dyck, as well as 
16 



INTRODUCTION 

Sir Joshua Reynolds and many other great 
and lesser artists, have made many copies of 
Titian's paintings and of others of the Vene- 
tian Masters. Much of this work was so well 
done that it now passes for the work of the 
painter of the original, and sometimes the 
original is regarded as the copy, as happened 
to Holbein's Dresden Madonna. In modern 
times a copy is condemned without a hear- 
ing; in the old days a copy was appreciated 
with the original, if it was equally well paint- 
ed. There is no doubt that when the above- 
named artists copied a picture it was done 
to study and analyze everything there was 
in it composition, drawing, color, technic, 
ground, method, and probably medium. We 
know these copies were sometimes highly 
prized by the artists themselves. 



17 



CHAPTER II 

THE MYSTERY 

IN copying a fine Old Master in a good 
state of preservation we strike at the outset 
mysterious obstacles if we attempt to make a 
copy by using the modern direct method of 
rendering each color and tone as nearly as pos- 
sible at the first touch. By mixing any colors, 
the true, or even approximate tone or color, 
is not reproduced with equal transparency and 
luminosity. The obstacles seem almost insur- 
mountable. One of the first things encoun- 
tered is a transparency and wealth of color to 
which our methods and material seem crude, 
heavy, and opaque. At once the thought 
would occur that the effect in their pictures 
was more the result of time, but that is the 
18 



THE MYSTERY 

case only in a very small degree, so well proved 
by the pictures of Rubens. Some of them in 
Munich are as fresh as though they had just 
been painted. This is also the case with the 
Van Dycks in the same gallery. This, then, 
brings us face to face with an unknown quan- 
tity. Did they use different material from 
that in use at the present day? If so, what 
did they use? The " glow and richness," 
Sir Joshua Reynolds said of Rubens' color- 
ing, " is that of a bunch of flowers! " Was 
it produced by varnish and luscious magilp? 
Perhaps ; why not ? But where is the proof ? 
Every material fact should be susceptible of 
proof before we can here accept it as an 
axiom to build on further. But as my Mu- 
nich instructor used to say, " Gentlemen, it is 
difficult, but there is no witchcraft in it," and 
to solve the problem I proceeded to experi- 
ment in varnish alone as a medium. 

Among other experiments, I painted an en- 
tire life-size head on an absorbent ground, 
that is, zinc white and size, the colors and 
19 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

medium being without a drop of oil in the en- 
tire picture, and solely with varnish ! If any 

of my readers have struggled through 
Varnish . .. 

Painting a similar problem they can afford to 

smile. The transparency obtained was 
beautiful, but the difficulties were tremen- 
dous, and I have no hesitation in condemn- 
ing the process as not that of the Masters, on 
the ground of impracticability, that is to say, 
a very slow, costly, tedious, and extremely 
difficult process. I felt convinced the Mas- 
ters could not have painted thus, because for 
each man to have produced as much as he 
did, he would have had to be reincarnated 
five or ten times, and even then the freedom 
of their work would have been in this method 
impossible. 

The next question in the problem was, could 

it be some other varnish 1 After more experi- 

Varnish menting I came to the conclusion that 

and Wax, or ft varnish whatever would have pre- 
Encauatic 

Painting cisely the same objections, although 
slightly differing in the handling on account 
20 



THE MYSTERY 

of more or less rapid drying, and becoming 
gummy and sticky. Then I tried the incorpo- 
ration of wax with the various varnishes to re- 
tard the drying and allow some freedom in 
handling. "Wax with Venetian turpentine, 
wax with amber, wax with mastic, wax with 
dammar, wax and copal, wax and balsam 
copaiba, wax and oil of turpentine, and other 
varnishes in like manner in very many vary- 
ing proportions, and, when possible, in cold 
combinations, that is to say, a close union was 
obtained when possible without resorting to 
heat. Spike oil or spirits of turpentine were 
used with most of the above combinations 
more or less. Wax was chosen as an inert 
neutral body to retard rapid oxidation or 
evaporation, and on account of its transpar- 
ency when used in a comparatively small 
quantity. It also had the additional ad- 
vantage of eliminating the glassy surface of 
the varnish. The wax also had the property of 
giving a body to a color or medium without 
itself imparting any noticeable color. All 
21 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

these combinations, be it understood, were 
used with color without any oil whatever. In 
due time I found that if the proportion of wax 
was large enough to retard the varnish, to en- 
able a modicum of deliberation in handling 
as in ordinary oil painting and give time to 
draw, color, and model with any degree of 
accuracy, the paint, although the effects were 
sometimes beautiful beyond anything possible 
with oil color, was entirely unsuitable for first 
use on the clean canvas and for intermediate 
layers. It would often remain in a semi-dry 
state for days and days. And with the appli- 
cation of heat to force the drying, the results 
were apt to be startling. Either the varnish 
sank down with the color, and even shifted, 
or the wax arose to the surface, giving its semi- 
dull sheen, and producing a spotty surface. 
Then again the varnish arose to the top and 
gave a disagreeable glassy surface. It was 
almost impossible to proceed when body colors 
and white were necessary, not to mention a 
decidedly pronounced tendency for the paint- 
22 



THE MYSTERY 

ing to become quite yellow and darker all over, 
and the fine delicate gray, violet, and pearl 
carnations to lose their original beauty in a 
very short time. 

All this proved that the Masters did not 
paint their pictures with pigment and medium 
composed solely of color substance mixed with 
varnish. Some of the effects obtained, name- 
ly, those with the Venice turpentine and wax, 
were very beautiful for final paintings, glaz- 
ings, or semi-veilings of flesh tones, such as 
Sir Joshua Reynolds was so fond of producing 
with the same material. It was charming, 
but alas ! the effect or aspect would not remain 
as painted, and in a comparatively short time 
become yellow, darkened, cracked, and other- 
wise deteriorated. In the above tests I had 
added more or less spirits of turpentine 
as a diluent or solvent and then, when a 
slower evaporating one was necessary, the 
turpentine was replaced by spike oil. Even 
then the " drying " that took place on the 
palette and brush was so rapid that there was 
3 23 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

no such thing as free and deliberate paint- 
ing with its attractions as observed in the 
Masters ' works. Beautiful chance effects, were 
of course, obtained, but if an attempt was 
made to follow nature, as in a portrait, the 
time required to find a correct tone, as in ordi- 
nary oil painting, was necessarily increased, 
and the handling was also extremely difficult. 
On its face, the Masters had no such difficul- 
ties to contend with. Combinations of resins 
or varnishes with wax, mixed with colors, 
without any oil, were therefore condemned as 
not feasible. 

I then proceeded to make tests with these 

resins and wax plus the colors ground in a 

little oil. In the actual handling of the 

various resins named there was not 

or Gums 

much difference, excepting in the great- 
er or less elasticity or hardness and softness. 
Venice turpentine and balsam copaiba are the 
softer, while dammar, mastic, amber, and co- 
pal are in a class by themselves, though still 
differing much from each other. Speaking 
24 



THE MYSTERY 

of resins from an artist's standpoint, one of 
the greatest difficulties in connection with 
resins in the dry state is the total lack of any 
standard quality, excepting as to more or less 
mixture of foreign matter, the clean resins 
being simply selected and possibly washed. 
If, for instance, of a given resin, say copal, 
a package of selected was bought one day, it 
was quite likely to be very different in its 
physical properties from a package of se- 
lected copal bought from the same house 
six months later. This condition of affairs I 
found could not very well be changed, since 
the largest buyers have the same trouble, and 
hence the " deviltries of varnish " have be- 
come one of the expected trials of the making 
of commercial varnish for ordinary purposes. 
The only way, it seemed to me, was to get the 
best resin possible from a reliable house and 
make the varnish, and afterwards subject it 
to the required test to ascertain if it fulfilled 
all the artist's demands, viz., transparency, 
proper drying, " remaining inert " and not 
25 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

contracting violently (so that the paint un- 
derneath, being in time perhaps a trifle less 
dry and in a softer state, should not be torn 
apart and cracked), and last, but most im- 
portant, its durability should be beyond ques- 
tion. The tendency to get yellow and change 
in color I found was strongest in the more 
elastic varnishes. That tendency of all var- 
nishes to darken, I had come to believe was 
caused by the rapid filming over but slower 
drying, and especially the lack of thorough 
drying " au fond." Ordinarily most var- 
nishes will dry in a way, but only on the sur- 
face, and sometimes the warmth of the finger 
placed for a moment on the surface will re- 
veal the sticky state underneath, which, of 
course, unless it is a final varnish, is very bad 
for any further application of oil colors or 
varnish colors viewed from the standpoint of 
durability. I have further been impressed 
with the fact that of the various varnishes 
named, one was more valuable to the artist 
than the others. Mastic when first used is 
26 



THE MYSTERY 

beautiful, but when a painting needs to have 
its varnish removed on account of extreme 
yellowness and semi-opaque state, it is usually 
found to be mastic. Its propensity to get 
quickly yellow and deteriorate is undoubted. 
Before its volatile part evaporates entirely it 
becomes yellow, the remainder soon loses its 
cohesion, and very minute cracks appear 
producing opacity and discoloration. These 
characteristics are common also to most other 
varnishes, but in markedly different degrees. 
Dammar will remain in a good state a much 
longer time and then suddenly begin to de- 
teriorate. Venice turpentine has a still great- 
er measure of instability, with the added dis- 
advantage that when it is bought in the open 
market it is in a semi-fluid state, but very 
thick, slow-moving, and is almost always sub- 
ject to adulteration, which vitally changes its 
normal character. Amber has the same char- 
acteristics as mastic, and is somewhat too 
viscous and glassy. Balsam copaiba is bought 
on the market in a semi-fluid state similar to 
27 



Venice turpentine, though not quite so thick, 
and is subject to adulterations to almost the 
same extent. Its propensity to become yellow 
is even greater than mastic, and some kinds 
have a strong tendency to turn yellow on ex- 
posure to strong light, which is probably due 
to the presence of acid, and is a very serious 
fault. 

Of all the resins that go to make up var- 
nishes, that known as copal, it seems to me, 

offers the best material for artists' use. 
Oopal 

There are quite a variety of resins un- 
der the general name of copal, from the 
very hardest, toughest kind which has almost 
a metallic ring when struck in the dry state, 
and known as Zanzibar copal to the elastic 
and at the same time tough Sierra Leone co- 
pal. There are many other kinds and qual- 
ities, and no doubt each importation varies 
somewhat from its predecessors. The Sierra 
Leone copal of the very best kind is very 
scarce and much the highest in price. It is 
said by the eminent French painter Vibert, in 
28 



THE MYSTERY 

his book " La Science de la Peinture," that 
real copal does not dissolve in anything that 
will not destroy it unless great heat is used, 
and then the very high temperature necessary 
destroys the copal and leaves only an ordinary 
resin, which no longer has the characteristics 
of copal. I have on many occasions made a 
fine copal varnish by placing the copal gum 
in alcohol and leaving it alone until such time 
as it would dissolve, with occasional shaking 
and placing in the sunlight to accelerate 
the dissolving of the gum or resin. This, of 
course, was a very slow progress, as in the first 
trial of this method it took over a year to dis- 
solve and in another only three weeks, but in 
both cases the varnish was quite clear, trans- 
parent, and dried very well. 

The essential oils of turpentine and spike 
oil are, as is well known, a prolific source 

of blackening when used to any large 
Turpentine, 

Spike oil, extent in oil painting, especially the tur- 

and Benzin , mi M -i 

pentine. The spike oil is very rarely 
pure. If the freshest, newly rectified turpen- 
29 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

tine be used, and quickly and thoroughly dried 
on the painting, it does not perceptibly dark- 
en, but as soon as a part is removed from the 
bottle, that which remains begins to thicken 
from contact with the air in the bottle, and 
then its further utility is impaired, viewed 
from the standpoint of durable transparency. 
Benzin may be classed with these, but it 
evaporates too rapidly to be very useful ex- 
cept as a diluent for oil, and as a constituent 
of some varnishes. 

As before stated, there has been a book 
written by J. G. Vibert, the noted French 

painter (" La Science de la Peinture "), 
Petroleum 

having for its especial object the intro- 
duction into oil painting of various oils pro- 
duced from petroleum. Colors were placed 
on public sale some years ago by a manufac- 
turer which were ground in petroleum alone. 
The colors ground in petroleum alone cannot 
possibly be durable, leaving aside a question 
of taste as to their use from a purely artistic 
standpoint of " handling," and action under 
30 



THE MYSTERY 

the brush, on the palette, and on the canvas. 
The petroleum in time is sure to evaporate or 
crawl, and sneak away in its well-known man- 
ner, and what then is to unite and hold in 
place the particles of color? M. Vibert's 
theory holds that the color should be ground 
in as little oil as possible and then diluted 
on the palette with what he terms normal 
resin dissolved in petroleum of a certain de- 
gree of evaporation. Now there are in com- 
merce some varnishes made of benzin, naphtha, 
and other volatile parts of petroleum in com- 
bination with resins, but these varnishes are 
generally intended to be applied in one broad, 
even application, and when an addition of oil 
is made in a cold state, do not give such good 
wearing results, the appearance soon becom- 
ing spotty and streaked. The normal resin 
and petroleum of Vibert intended to be used 
on the palette with the brush, every artist will 
admit at once is but mixed with the color as 
it suits the eye of the artist, and no rule or 
theory of mixing is adhered to. Some colors 
31 



may be applied to the canvas with no normal 
resin petroleum mixture whatever, while some 
may be applied with a very large percent- 
age of the Vibert mixture. It follows then 
that a very uneven and I may say accidental 
drying takes place; the parts having most 
normal mixture (if I may be allowed the ex- 
pression, with all due respect to M. Vibert) 
will in time be subjected to the largest per- 
centage of evaporation. If the mixture is 
such as to permit perfect freedom in han- 
dling or brush work, or, as he says of similar 
action on the palette, to oil itself, the propor- 
tion of evaporation is materially enhanced. 
Here then we have a picture whose surface 
is made up of resin and oil in some parts and 
oil alone in others. The drying or hardening 
can proceed in anything but a normal manner ; 
the parts of resin and oil will be more yellow 
and less durable in time than the part hav- 
ing a small quantity of oil alone. This dif- 
ference, however, would not be so serious if 
it were not a question of durability, for the 
32 



THE MYSTERY 

resin dries out and loses its cohesion, especially 
if it has been previously dissolved in some 
form of petroleum. 

From my own experience alone, a pure 
turpentine varnish is worthless, since as the 
turpentine evaporates it loses its elasticity, 
and with the loss of elasticity there ensues an 
increase of evaporation caused by the separa- 
tion of the particles and producing minute 
cracks, one effect causing the other, with a 
final total disintegration of the resin. But, 
nevertheless, turpentine has a far greater 
binding power than petroleum, for it is itself 
a poor quality of resin in a liquid state. So 
what can we expect from a medium whose 
binder is petroleum? I will answer, if the 
oil has been displaced to any appreciable ex- 
tent, the destruction is inevitable ! 

In a recent New York paper appeared the 
following significant item : " M. Vibert has 
been an earnest student of the technical scien- 
tific side of painting, especially concerning 
the question of permanency in colors. For 
33 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

years he was the leading member of the com- 
mission which had charge of the restoration 
of art works in the national museums of 
France, and he gave a famous series of lec- 
tures at the Ecole des Beaux Arts upon the 
chemistry of colors. His manual upon the 
science of painting is recognized in French 
studios as an authority. It would be sad, 
indeed, should Vibert's cardinals ever lose 
their gorgeousness, and it may comfort their 
present owners to know that the artist con- 
sidered them good for at least a century, 
whereas he believed, ' that many pictures of 
the present day will fade into insignificance 
before they are fifty years old.' ' 

The next step in the search for a true 
vehicle and medium, after the condemnation 

of the wax and resins and the rejec- 
on 

tion of the petroleum combinations, was 

the retention of the resinous principle and 
the substitution of some substance to take the 
place of wax. The very obvious freedom of 
the brush in the work of the Masters forced 
34 



the conclusion that their mediums must have 
contained some substance at once soft and 
oily during the handling and work; hard, 
tough, and transparent after good thorough 
drying, and, above all, moisture-resisting and 
very durable. Though fully aware of the 
bad reputation of oil, I took up a series of 
experiments with the hope of effecting a 
combination that would neutralize its injuri- 
ous character. 

The first mixture is naturally oil with some 
resin or varnish. 



35 



CHAPTER III 

THE THREE OILS 

WHILE on the subject of oil it may be 
useful to note some of the constituents and 
character of the oils used generally by artists, 
as ascertained by the noted German chemist, 
Pettenkofer. Without entering into the chem- 
ical details, in a general way it may be stated 
that of the three oils linseed, poppy, and nut 
oil linseed contains a higher percentage of 
the "linolein" or real working and durable 
part of the oil. The proportion of ' ' Hnolein ' ' 
in linseed is eighty per cent, in poppy seventy- 
five, in nut sixty-seven, according to Petten- 
kofer. The other twenty, twenty-five, and 
thirty-three per cent respectively of the oil 
constituent is a mucilaginous substance, and 
in proportion to its presence in quantity is 
36 



THE THREE OILS 

deleterious and injurious. It produces opaci- 
ty and hinders a quick drying. In my judg- 
ment the manner in which the oil is expressed 
from the seed is the important part. If 
the seed is pressed too hard, as seems to be 
the rule nowadays with hydraulic presses of 
great power, the ground linseed meal being 
constantly in direct contact with steam, it 
is not surprising that the undesirable sub- 
stances are expressed with the oil. It seems 
to me that the old, slow Italian process is the 
best, where each artist made his own oil from 
the seed by a slow water process with the aid 
of the sun, without steam or pressure, and 
without the mixture of injurious chemicals. 
This is the safest kind of oil to employ. But 
if pressure must be resorted to, it should not 
be so excessive. The oil itself varies in the 
same seed, supposing all the time you have 
the best, full-grown, ripe seed. The first press- 
ings are the best. The difference in color is 
the only thing to make some artists favor 
poppy oil in preference to linseed, the poppy 
37 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

oil being so much whiter and more transpar- 
ent ; but in this case things are not what they 
seem, as in time the poppy oil gets darker 
and yellower. In comparison to linseed and 
poppy oil, I do not think nut oil should be 
used when either of the former can be had. 
The choice should always be in favor of lin- 
seed as between linseed and poppy, because 
the former dries throughout better, does not 
increase its volume to the extent that poppy 
does, and, lastly, gives a less viscous surface. 
As I said before, the next step in the search 
was naturally a mixture of resin, or varnish, 

and oil. The defects involved in such 
Oil and 

Resin, or mixtures, applies to all three oils, only 
increased or diminished by the greater 
or less amount of mucilaginous substances 
each oil contained, so I will refer only to lin- 
seed oil hereafter when oil is mentioned. Oil, 
when added to a resin and used as a medium 
or vehicle with the brush on the palette, does 
not combine and form one homogeneous sub- 
stance for our purpose unless subjected to 
38 



THE THREE OILS 

boiling. Then our oil has become also a new 
kind of viscous varnish. Now you have raw 
oil in your colors on the palette, and a varnish 
to spread or dilute them with, but the oil in 
the color not having been boiled remains 
apart, and the varnish remains by itself. On 
the picture the varnish dries on the surface, 
and your oil, undried, remains underneath and 
becomes very yellow and dark. I have some 
tests of this kind, over fifteen years old 
where the combination was of resins and oils 
without any coloring matter added to compli- 
cate the process of drying that have turned 
as dark as raw sienna with some asphaltum 
added! Just think of it! supposing a color 
tone of light, tender, silvery carnation, such as 
we find in the nude and in the faces of women, 
were mixed with this medium. What would 
become of the color, I will leave to the reader's 
imagination. These tests were mostly made 
up of raw oils and boiled oils, and oils thick- 
ened or thinned in various ways oil and 
mastic, oil and dammar, oil and amber, oil 
* 39 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

and copal, oil and Venice turpentine, oil and 
balsam copaiba, oil and other resins. 

The above-mentioned mediums were in ad- 
dition tested in conjunction with the essential 
oil of turpentine, benzin, and oil of spike, 
in varying quantities. The possible propor- 
tions of the elemental substances are almost 
unlimited, as I discovered with the simple 
combination of the three, oil of turpentine, 
wax, and Venice turpentine. Of these three 
I had made a great many combinations, be- 
cause I had good reason to believe that Sir 
Joshua Reynolds had made a very extensive 
use of them. A mixture of balsam copaiba, 
amber varnish, linseed oil, and turpentine 
had been recommended to me at one time 
on quite respectable authority, but it did not 
take very long to demonstrate its utter worth- 
lessness, and the childlike credulity and inno- 
cence of technical knowledge of the quite ex- 
tensive circle of artists who made constant 
use of it. The tests were always made on 
a pure white canvas made by myself, whose 
40 



THE THREE OILS 

component parts I could rely upon, and which 
had been previously tested as to stability and 
purity. The tests also embraced every com- 
bination of any of the above-mentioned in- 
gredients I could think of, but I soon learned 
that it was better to keep the number of 
substances as few as possible, so that their 
character could be more easily noted, and 
any characteristics increased or modified as 
the technical brush handling demanded. 
When I thought I had found the real me- 
dium I generally painted a head, and some 
changed color so rapidly as to suggest that 
they were ashamed of themselves. One pro- 
file head of a lady turned out so well in 
every way that I was immensely pleased, but 
after about one year I suspected that the 
study was becoming yellow, and when sus- 
picion afterwards became a certainty I felt 
very much depressed. Speaking of the yel- 
lowing reminds me that I nearly forgot the 
substance sometimes used by some artists as 
a quick-drying varnish which turns a strong 
41 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

yellow as soon as anything employed in paint- 
ing, and that is the white of egg. No more 
need be said about it. All the mediums thus 
far mentioned were found wanting in stabil- 
ity. That is, primarily, in not retaining their 
original colorless transparency as at the time 
when first applied, and turning yellow was a 
very common serious fault, without taking 
any further account of blackening. 

The varnish having failed us, and varnish 
with other ingredients, we must turn to an ex- 
haustive examination of our old friend, 
Oil Alone 

as the oil alone ; that is, without any other 

substance whatever added. It is quite 
generally known that oil alone darkens and 
yellows. It needed no very extensive tests to 
make that a certainty, nevertheless, I under- 
took a series of experiments with the oils 
alone. Tests made of oil as supplied by 
the large manufacturers of artists' materials 
showed that no matter how the oil may have 
been extracted and purified, it became yellow 
and dark. I then procured the very best 
42 



THE THRBH OILS 

raw linseed oil to be had in New York City, 
and purified it with a method I had hit upon 
while in Italy, namely, the freezing process. 
An earthen vessel with a cover was nearly 
filled, with the oil, and placed outdoors in 
winter, in some sheltered place, and at inter- 
vals, when snow fell, snow was added to the 
oil. This caused the fats to separate from the 
oil and sink to the bottom of the vessel, fats 
that in the first place should, in a large meas- 
ure, not have been pressed out with the oil. 
The oil, of course, is decanted for use, and I 
have found it to be clear and very limpid. It 
seems very probable the same results could be 
obtained with broken ice in a quicker way, 
but I have not tried it. But alas ! even these 
precautions did not prevent the oil from get- 
ting yellow and dark. The same results were 
obtained when the oil was purified by water 
and agitation, in both cases bleaching in the 
sun not preventing the oil from yellowing 
and darkening. I tried boiling it more or less, 
thickening it in the sun with litharge, or red 
43 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

lead, and also thickening it in the sun without 
any substance added. Manganesed oil had 
the same effect. All these tests gave more 
or less the same results, a complete failure 
to maintain a pure, colorless transparency. 
What then are we to paint with, you will say. 
That I purpose to show you it was revealed 
to me in the various stages of my search, and 
the process of reasoning that led to the final 
indisputable triumphant result. 

In the first place, a canvas or panel should 
be grounded absolutely white, not only because 
we have proof that the great technical 
Masters, and particularly Rubens, used 
a pure white ground, but because a pure 
white ground is an absolute necessity to 
counteract the effects of time, and to give a 
painting that subdued quality of light which 
can be obtained in no other way ; and further, 
any other color of ground, in proportion as 
it deviates from pure white, is a positive in- 
jury to the painting placed upon it. Whether 
the paint is thick or thin, if proper method 
44 



THE THREE OILS 

and material has been employed, the paint 
should and will become transparent, and, if 
anything, the effect more luminous. French 
restorers of the early part of the nineteenth 
century have stated that while the work of 
Frenchmen like Claude Lorraine, Blanchard, 
and others who have lived and worked in Italy 
was technically constructed on the same 
principles as the work of the Italian Masters, 
there was a great difference in body. They 
also said that the French artists' work had a 
lightness and delicacy, that the canvas ground 
was too thin, that this combination made 
the work lose its original beauty more surely 
as time passed, and that there were very few 
Lorraines that had not had the need of a re- 
storer's attention. The French and Italian 
restorers have privately stated that of all 
pictures, those apparently done with the Mas- 
ters' methods were the most difficult to re- 
store, and that to match a tone finely on a 
Lorraine always required a little study by 
itself. From this it would seem that it is 
45 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

wise for durability to have as a foundation 
to paint on as thickly primed a canvas as can 
be made, but not so thick that it will crack or 
not stand rolling, and also have the under 
paintings rather heavy, like Titian ; but, on the 
other hand, if there is a heavy, pure white 
ground, like Eubens invariably used, the first 
and subsequent paintings may be compara- 
tively thin and still be absolutely durable, 
like his work that has come down to us. 
Turner's landscapes and marines have, ac- 
cording to my personal observation, a heavy 
first ground or prime, and a rather heavy 
first painting, and I think his work is durable, 
but ignorant owners, curators, and restorers 
are helping to give his work a bad repu- 
tation. 

The canvas supplied to artists by the 

modern manufacturer is no exception to the 

conditions that govern the manufacture 

Modern and sale of all other artists' materials. 
Canvas 

The conditions of the commercial side of 
artists' materials are mainly due to the artists' 
46 



THE THREE OILS 

ignorance of such things. The dealers, I am 
convinced, would gladly supply what was 
needed, if there was a consistent demand. 
They often undertake, with great labor, to 
supply stuff of no real value to anybody and 
a great injury to the artists. They also, I 
am sure, are trying to get their supply of 
material of as fine and durable a standard 
as possible, but primarily from a business 
standpoint. They very justly say it is not 
their business to teach the artists what to use, 
or enforce technical morality among them. 
They would have an impossible task if they 
tried. They are in business to supply what- 
ever they can sell at a profit. The only delib- 
erate fraud I have noticed was the temptation 
to sell some inferior substance as the best 
genuine madder, this fraud is really serious, 
since the tubes are quite small, and it is 
very annoying to make a test of each tube, 
but, if it is not done, the color in the picture 
is liable to disappear. The canvas generally 
supplied by manufacturers is far from white, 
47 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

and only in very rare cases does it even ap- 
proach white, and if you ask the dealer he 
will tell you he will always sell more of that 
which is low in key and generally of a gray 
tone, one reason for that being that unless an 
artist is familiar with the pure white ground 
and knows how to handle it, it is very trying 
to the eyes until covered, and also necessi- 
tates a thicker paint treatment to cover the 
white in fact, causes an annoyance instead of 
being an agreeable inducement to color. One 
great colorist I knew habitually used a rather 
dark, yellowish canvas, and covered that with 
a very thin " veil " of bone brown or black 
and " siccatif de Courtrai." So a beautiful 
study head he had given me has been grad- 
ually disappearing in dense blackness, and a 
picture of his in a public gallery has lost all 
its beauty of color, and is also being over- 
whelmed with the rising tide of black, pre- 
sumably from the same causes. An artist 
rarely asks a dealer what are the component 
parts of the ground of this canvas in fact, I 
48 



THE THBEE OILS 

never heard of a case and if he did ask, he 
would get no satisfactory answer, for the deal- 
ers do not know. The artist invariably ex- 
amines the texture and tone of color; beyond 
that the price, only, interests him; but if he 
were told this canvas is the very worst stuff 
his precious work could be put on, he would 
be startled. To obtain the medium-yellowish, 
buff-colored canvas the commonest oils and 
not alone impure white lead are used, but 
chalk or whiting, honey, wax, yolk of egg, 
glues, coloring substances, clays, ochres, 
earths, etc., to get the desired low tone, to 
prevent cracking, and, above all, to reduce the 
cost of labor and material. Now such a can- 
vas has at the outset no luminosity of its 
own, in time becomes brownish yellow, and 
can never lend any light and life to a paint- 
ing placed on it; the dull, gray kind is inju- 
rious for the same reason. 

If Rubens had placed one of his paintings 
on a dull, gray ground, such as is commonly 
used to-day, its color would never have re- 
49 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

tained its original brightness and harmony. 
It would have become dull and somber in 
time. Speaking of harmony reminds me of 
how a well-known European artist lost the 
harmony from the very beautiful pastel heads 
he had a happy faculty of doing on gray card- 
board grounds. The gray was a very fine tone, 
neither dead nor heavy, and the pastels were 
mostly vignettes of beautiful women's heads, 
but the light acting on the acids in the card- 
board changed the fine gray tone and substi- 
tuted a buff yellow of a darker shade, so that 
where he had allowed the gray tone to appear 
in the flesh the change had destroyed all the 
original beauty and harmony, and a great pity 
it was! I have used white cardboard and 
found it subject to even more change to yel- 
low, excepting only when the surface was first 
thickly covered so as to prevent light from 
penetrating. 

Generally speaking, if any change is taking 
place in any painting, it is quite sure to be 
toward yellow, brown, and darkness, and in 
50 



THE THREE OILS 

fact a real " yellow peril " faces the artist 
unless he knows how to avoid it. 

Leaving aside the lack of luminosity in the 
commercial canvas at the outset, in time it 
grows rapidly darker and more yellow from 
the cheap materials composing it, and un- 
fortunately nearly all modern artists use it. 
Most painters, alas ! care not what to-morrow 
brings, since most of them have troubles 
enough for the present without looking for 
more. The impure oils and other deleterious 
ingredients make the canvas keep better for 
the dealers ; it remains more pliable, can be 
kept better in small rolls for a longer time, and 
is thus more convenient for transportation. 
As for the ground itself remaining firmly and 
permanently attached to the linen threads, 
that depends upon the quality of the glue 
used, how well applied, and also upon the 
ingredients of the ground itself. In such a 
case, time only can decide the question. If, 
however, an artist made the whole canvas him- 
self, as the Old Masters or their apprentices 
51 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

did, he would know very well, without regard 
to time. 

There are various kinds of absorbent canvas 
or grounds, and consequently not all neces- 
sarily exactly alike in their action and 

Absorbent resu its. The probable cause of the use 
Canvas 

of absorbent ground dates back beyond 
the tempera days of painting much in vogue 
before the discovery, or rather more extended 
use, of oil for picture painting. Its adoption 
may also have been brought about because 
it was so much more quickly made. To make 
an oil ground properly demanded much more 
persistent attention and labor, extending over 
considerable time. An ordinary absorbent 
chalk, whiting, or " gesso " ground could 
be well made throughout in twenty- four 
hours, but an oil ground well made required 
an indefinite number of weeks in winter, and 
not less than three or four weeks in good 
clear, sunshiny weather in summer. In short, 
the difference between the periods requisite 
for the drying of oil and glue water respec- 
52 



THE THREE OILS 

tively. This may have caused the extended 
use of the absorbent ground. The essential 
difference in material construction was that 
one had glue or casein dissolved in water as 
a binder for the chalk, whiting, zinc white, 
etc., and which could dry well in a warm room 
in twenty- four hours or less; the other had 
oil as a binder, and white lead or zinc white 
as the luminous body, and did not dry well 
" au fond " for a long time if applied the 
least bit thickly, and the surface needed, after 
each layer or coat was thoroughly dried, to be 
laboriously scraped or rubbed down. Of this 
manipulation the earliest authentic reference 
I could find was in a letter of Albrecht Dii- 
rer's to a friend in Niirnberg, dated Venice, 
January 6, 1506, a time when Titian was 
twenty-nine years of age, and his contempo- 
rary in that little city. Diirer's artistic and 
social position in Venice at that time was a 
good one. He was publicly commended by 
Giovanni Bellini to many of the nobility in- 
cluding the Doge and the patriarch Aquilija 
53 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

called on him. The paragraph in the letter 
follows as nearly as I can translate the old- 
style German: " I have to paint a panel for 
the Germans, for which they will give me 
one hundred and ten gulden Rhenish, with 
hardly five gulden expenses. I will get the 
whitening and scraping done in eight days, 
then I will immediately begin to paint, and if 
God wills, a month after Easter I will have it 
standing on the altar." Diirer, it seems, did 
not have an apprentice, like his contempora- 
ries, but that may be accounted for because 
he was not able to speak Italian fluently. 
" En passant," here is where, if an artist 
made his own canvas ground, as he should, or 
at least supervised its construction, the old 
Venetian system of art apprenticeship came 
in very " handily." 

An absorbent ground does not necessarily 
have whiting or chalk for its white constituent. 
It may have zinc white or white lead or 
barium sulphate, but with the manufacturing 
of large quantities of canvas on the modern 
54 



THE THREE OILS 

plan, the question of cost is naturally in favor 
of whiting. This question of cost applies even 
more to oil grounds. "When a canvas ground 
is made of oil and the white or body con- 
stituent is in whole or part made up of whit- 
ing, there is reason to believe that the alkali 
in the whiting acts on the oil and destroys it ; 
hence the change in tone and color. At first 
such canvas is more salable on account of 
the discoloration produced by mixing oil and 
whiting; when made thicker, this substance 
is commonly called " putty " in this country. 
About the year 1800, in Paris, the first 
transfer of paintings on wood was made to 
canvas, and was undertaken on the orders 
of the great Napoleon. One was that of 
Raphael's " Madonna del Fuligno," supposed 
to be now in the Vatican at Rome. Hacquin, 
who undertook the transfer, was supervised by 
a commission, and they have asserted in their 
report that the ground on which it was paint- 
ed was a white glue ground. The same com- 
missioners had in charge the transportation 
5 55 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

from Italy to Paris of Titian's large picture 
" The Martyrdom of St. Peter the Domini- 
can, ' ' also for the purpose of a restoration. It 
was shipped on board the frigate Favorite, 
and before it reached Marseilles a violent 
storm was the cause of a severe soaking to the 
already damaged picture. ' ' The wet wood be- 
gan to swell and the glue ground lost all hold." 
Hacquin made the transfer to canvas. From 
this it seems there is plenty of evidence that 
at least the wood was covered with a layer of 
glue, even if the ground was not a glue ground 
entirely. 



56 



CHAPTER IV 

ABSORBENT GROUND VERSUS NONABSORBENT 

THE subject of absorbent ground is not a 
simple affair, the bad reputation of oil to yel- 
low and darken having doubtless caused many 
modern artists to cling to this straw of ab- 
sorbent ground. I said straw, but barbed wire 
would be a better term. The painters prob- 
ably thought that if they could get the oil to 
hide its head in the absorbent ground, like the 
ostrich, it would not be seen or found out. It 
is a fallacy to suppose that the oil is harmless 
if it has become absorbed in the ground ; on the 
contrary, it is then a source of future dis- 
coloration and darkening. It is a serious 
mistake, because as the ground is constructed 
on the theory that the oil is to be absorbed, 
there is necessarily a large part of the oil im- 
57 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

mediately absorbed from the paint as it is 
applied, which instantly hampers the free 
movement of the brush and brings about a 
confined technic in fact, no technic at all, but 
an opaque, dull mess. Some painters, to over- 
come this difficulty, then use more oil or other 
vehicle, or, as I have seen some artists do, 
apply on the absorbent surface, before any 
paint whatever is used, a covering of pure oil 
alone, and on this fresh oily surface begin to 
paint. It is obvious that such a method in- 
creases the quantity of oil present in the 
ground and in the painting in such condition 
and situation as will surely bring about yel- 
lowing, blackness, and a dead, heavy aspect. 
Used in this way there is no logic in the use of 
an absorbent ground; the thing is an absurd- 
ity. On the other hand, there are two other 
ways, or rather one, with a variation, and that 
is to cover the white absorbent ground with a 
thin layer of quick-drying, " copal " var- 
nish, thus making it practically a " varnish 
ground," which, when well hardened, is a 
58 



ABSORBENT GROUND VS. NONABSORBENT 

much better surface to work upon. This var- 
nish can be applied thick enough to have a 
gloss (a matter of taste), or still thin enough 
to leave, after drying, a tendency to absorb. 
If made sufficiently thick and strong and prop- 
erly dried, it will prevent the oil from being 
absorbed. But, you will say, what is the good 
of having an absorbent ground that does not 
absorb ? Why, this : in the first place you have 
a white ground more quickly made, although 
the varnish will take away much of its white- 
ness and purity, but you have still a luminous 
ground without the certainty that it will turn 
a yellow or brown from the presence of the 
oil in the very foundation, and the assur- 
ance that it will retain its tone or key of light. 
Another way to treat the absorbent ground 
is to apply a layer of glue or size, and, in 
proportion to its quality, covering the sur- 
face so the oil cannot enter the ground, and 
so making it convenient to paint upon, and 
making an increase of oil or medium unneces- 
sary. This latter device may be in a measure 
59 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

incorporated into the original ground when 
making it, that is, increasing the proportion of 
glue or casein; but if not made exactly right 
it is apt to cause the ground to crack from 
the slightest jar or blow. Personally, I prefer 
the copal varnish covering to the glue. This 
subject recalls one of Sir Joshua Reynolds 's 
memoranda in reference to chalk, or " gesso," 
grounds: " Zuccarelli says that Paulo (Vero- 
nese) and Tintoretto painted on a * gess ' 
ground. He does not think Titian did. I am 
firmly convinced they all did." Zuccarelli 
was a contemporary of his and painted land- 
scapes, and Reynolds was using " gesso " 
grounds at that time. But Reynolds soon 
after began using a ground very differently 
constituted, and this brings us to a separate 
and distinct ground, as different from oil 
and white lead as oil and white lead is from 
glue and zinc white a resinous or varnish 
ground. 

Reynolds sought the transparency and 
color charm of the Masters in every possible 
60 



ABSORBENT GROUND VS. NONABSORBENT 

way, and among many strange devices he 
made use of the varnish ground. In Rey- 
nolds 's private diaries we find two memo- 
randa about varnish grounds, one in 
Grounds reference to a portrait of himself, which 
reads, after a brief note of the colors 
used, " the cloth varnished first with copal 
var. white and blue, on a raw cloth." The 
word blue, it seems, was afterwards struck 
through with a pen. Other technical memo- 
randa of his referred to gray grounds, but 
this one was white, and, most important, it 
was made of copal varnish and white. 
Nearly all his life he had been trying to 
get along without oil, and that extended 
even to the ground. Another memorandum 
refers to a ground made of Venice turpen- 
tine and wax. I have painted on quite a 
variety of varnish grounds, and among them 
these two kinds. The Venice turpentine 
and wax is a very poor example of ground, 
as it detaches itself very easily from the 
threads of the cloth. As soon as the turpen- 
61 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

tine dries it has a tendency to crumble into a 
powder, not to mention its strong . tendency 
to get a very exasperating yellow. The copal 
is better, as far as durability is concerned, 
but it will also yellow. I have used benzin 
and dammar with zinc white and paraffin. 
Also alcohol, copal, and zinc white, and some 
other combinations, one of which gives prom- 
ise of great good service; but as sufficient 
time has not elapsed to characterize it defi- 
nitely, suffice it to say, that with the latter 
exception they have a tendency to yellow, and 
their durability is not as great as genuine 
pure white lead oil ground. But their work- 
ing quality is superb; as the grain is rough 
or fine the charm of working on a real varnish 
ground is very alluring ; you can work thin or 
thick, sketch or finish highly. The freedom 
of technic and brush is as fine as it can be, the 
paint retains its even tone as applied, there 
is no spotting and opacity alternating with 
transparency, and it can be made so that it is 
absorbent (whoever may want it) by reducing 
62 



ABSORBENT GROUND VS. NONABSORBENT 

the proportion of resin in the material that 
makes up the ground. 

I do not remember ever to have seen a 
picture of the Masters that led me to believe 
it had that dead, dull, lackluster, nontrans- 
parent look to the surface so much prized 
by some modern painters, who take special 
pains to bring it about; and in all my re- 
searches I have never seen any letter or de- 
scription of any notable painting by the 
Masters that indicated such a surface was 
intended by the artist. I do not wish to decry 
it, and, on the other hand, some of the paint- 
ings in our museums and private galleries are 
heavy with varnish. There is a beautiful 
medium between both extremes, and, excepting 
of course mural decorations, the nearer you 
get to the dry beauty of a pastel, the less you 
have of durability, the pastel having the least 
durability of all known technics. 

The term white ground, as here used, is in- 
tended to convey the idea of an absolute white, 
either the color of white chalk, or the color 
63 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

and luminous body of white lead or zinc white. 
The principle and method governing its use 

was known to all the Old Masters, from 
The Pure 

White whom it has come down to us, and only 

e modified here and there according to 



Veil or their individual taste and personal man- 
stain 

nerisms. There is no doubt that they all 

used a white ground, or their work would not 
have survived. Of all the Old Masters whose 
work is in the highest key and shows the 
brightest colors, that of Rubens stands out 
almost alone. His work is technically in a 
class by itself, and although all the others 
differ as to their individuality, yet their work 
never reaches quite that high key of luminous 
fresh color. This effect was due primarily to 
the absolutely white ground, and to the ex- 
treme care Rubens took to preserve it through 
all stages of his work and the finished picture. 
Most of the other Masters used it with the 
ultimate object of giving light and prevent- 
ing heaviness as time dried out the work. 
The end sought was, that as each layer be- 
64 



ABSORBENT GROUND VS. NONABSORBENT 

came more transparent, the white ground 
should finally lend its subdued light to the 
mellowed painting. Pure white grounds are, 
however, as every artist knows who has tried 
them, very trying to the eyes until they are 
covered. Not only that, but if the artist has 
a thin, even manner of applying paint to 
canvas, it takes more than one application to 
cover it sufficiently so it is no longer a cause 
of disturbance to his feeling for the cor- 
rect tone or keynote of his work. To over- 
come this disturbance to the artist's comfort 
while working, and to save time and labor and 
avoid repetition of the application of certain 
tones of color solely to hold down the excessive 
light, the Masters have resorted to a device 
which shows what wonderful craftsmen they 
were, aside from their artistic skill. This 
device, which I will call a first veil or stain, 
as it cannot properly be called a glaze, is a 
very thin, transparent, flat, even stain over 
the whole surface of the canvas, and of which 
I shall treat more in detail later on. 
65 



THE SECEET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

Of all the Masters, this first veil is most 
obvious in Rubens, and was said to have 
been, in some few cases, made up of a very 
small quantity of color in powder, mixed with 
a glue size when used on an absorbent glue- 
made ground, or composed of quick-drying 
varnish when used on an oil ground. One 
eminent Italian restorer, who studied for years 
the secrets of the Old Masters in their paint- 
ings, claims to have found the same kind of 
glue-size stain in Titian's work. For ob- 
vious reasons this veil must dry quickly and 
thoroughly, sufficiently at any rate so it shall 
lie undisturbed as it is worked upon by the 
artist in his first painting. If glue size is 
used for such a purpose, it follows that it must 
be over a white ground whose binding liquid 
was also a glue, so as to bring about intimate 
union. Rubens, we know, has made exten- 
sive use of the first veil, but in a very light, 
delicate way. His famous pupil, Van Dyck, 
also made constant use of the veil. 



66 



CHAPTER V 

TEMPERA 

PAUL VERONESE was said by Merimee to 
have begun some pictures in tempera (colors 
in watery glues) when his canvas was primed 
in tempera. This is rather a loose statement 
to make, because this supposes the use of 
white or body color. In my judgment, if he 
used colors mixed in glue size on a glue 
"gesso " ground sometimes, he did it only as 
a kind of veil of the dazzling white. This 
veil contained no white or body color, and 
was only a delicate local color stain or veil. 
By local colors, of course, I mean a sugges- 
tion of the color very thinly and transparent- 
ly of, say in a portrait, a tint for the hair, 
another for the flesh, another for the drapery, 
another for the background, etc., but this, of 
67 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

course, supposing there is a very correct 
drawing on the white ground in some kind 
of crayon not easily washed away by the 
brush. This local color veil, or stain, is very 
comfortable to work on if it is varnished suf- 
ficiently when dry. On the other hand, the 
local color may, in a similar way, be applied 
with oil or varnish as a medium, or it may 
even be applied after the broad, general flat 
veil above described has been used. 

All these different slight variations of the 
same principle may be used as the artist's 
taste dictates, only besides taste a question 
of time and proper drying is to be considered. 
Of course a local tinting or veiling of which 
the binding liquid is size or glue must be ap- 
plied to a size or glue ground of equal char- 
acter and composition, and in immediate con- 
tact, so a close union is obtained; if not, the 
paint is liable to peel off and otherwise de- 
teriorate. While on this subject of tempera 
pure and simple, I would say that unless it is 
protected by some kind of moisture-resisting 
68 



TEMPERA 

varnish it is as destructible as the lovely 
pastel. The effects of tempera for decorative 
purposes can be obtained by oil paint in a 
finer and far more powerful manner, with a 
wider range, and are far more durable. But 
to mix tempera with oil painting, except as 
above indicated, is absurd. Tempera colors 
have been put up in tubes by manufacturers 
every little while on some secret and much- 
heralded discovery as the Masters' secret, 
or as a manifestation of a serious revolt 
against the " deviltries " of oil or varnish, 
but they all fall into disuse because tempera 
as a substitute for oil has the fatal weakness 
that it is not so easy to handle, has not the 
wide range or power, and its durability is not 
to be compared with oil at all. 

Everybody knows the color of the ground 
influences the eye working on it. Titian's 
study for the Pesaro Madonna at Venice has a 
reddish veil, and though we can easily im- 
agine such a powerful artist using any kind of 
tinted veil to suit his ultimate intention, he 
69 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

seems to have had a leaning in preference to 
red, and the red is an extremely difficult tone 
to control. That the Old Masters, for all 
large, important work, used careful drawings, 
and particularly Titian and Rubens, cannot 
be denied. There are, however, few authentic 
drawings of Titian 's in existence, and the pre- 
sumption is that when possible he worked 
without their aid. Rubens was extremely 
particular that the ground should maintain its 
purity and not have any black get in any of 
the shadows, for which condition he had a 
wholesome antipathy. Whether the veil be 
passed over the drawing, or passed over the 
white ground before the drawing is put on, 
remains a matter of taste. The probability 
was that the drawing was placed in most 
cases on the white ground with some material 
not easily effaced when a wet brush passed 
over it. Rubens very probably used the same 
kind of crayon with which he made his first 
drawings on paper. This veil, it must be un- 
derstood, was one broad, flat, very light and 
70 



TEMPERA 

transparent tone without any body color 
spread over the whole canvas ; and, as I have 
tested in many instances, a veil made of copal 
varnish thin enough to avoid a glassy surface, 
with some raw umber or other color in powder 
added when well dried, makes a beautiful and 
durable ground to work on, either with an 
absorbent or nonabsorbent ground, only a lit- 
tle more care and experience is necessary when 
applying to an absorbent ground. If time is 
of no particular value at this stage of the 
work, a veil composed of oil thickened in the 
sun on litharge and then reduced to the de- 
sired thinness with the aid of fresh turpen- 
tine, and a very little of the desired color 
added, placed on an oil or other nonabsorb- 
ent ground, is very satisfactory, if it is then 
thoroughly dried out. 

Here, with the veil, we must well consider 
the advisability of the introduction of a sub- 
stance other than oil into an oil painting in 
this case the copal. The use of copal at this 
stage of the work, and in this manner, is, 
6 71 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

from the standpoint of durability, perfectly 
sound, provided it is thoroughly dry and 
hard before it is worked upon. The copal 
thus used can and does dry evenly, and at- 
taches, unites, and anchors itself to the 
ground, and if treated in such manner as I 
shall indicate later on, closes the pores suf- 
ficiently to serve the other purpose of making 
an absorbent ground far more agreeable to 
work upon. The brush goes over the surface 
more evenly and much more quickly, thus 
again saving tune, which in case of an artist 
face to face with a sitter or model is of ex- 
ceeding importance. Further, a work easily 
done is more apt to have life and interest than 
if the same amount of artistic facts were put 
in with more labor. 

It must be accepted as a fact, however, that 
a painting done with freedom and ease is 
certain to have more beauty. A painting 
done, as it often is (and shows it, too), with 
an appalling amount of sheer labor, makes 
of the artist a laborer. It must go without 
72 



TEMPERA 

saying that the Old Masters, Titian and Ru- 
bens in particular, were familiar with every 
labor- and time-saving device. If their work 
had not been done easily and quickly, and 
at the same time with absolute thoroughness 
and certainty, they could not have produced 
what they did, and the art world would 
have been poorer in proportion. The addi- 
tional advantage of this first veil is that its 
color can be changed and the tone varied to 
suit the subject in hand, and thus make an in- 
viting change for the artist himself ; or, as in 
the case of the landscape painters, a reddish 
tone may be used, which in time comes through 
and modifies and mellows the raw greens, a 
process said on good authority to have been 
used by one of the very best American land- 
scape painters, George Inness. He had studied 
in Italy, and the Old Masters' method of 
transparent colors placed one above the other 
could not but influence such genius as his. His 
method, as described in reference to the veil, 
reads thus: " Stained white canvas with Ve- 
73 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

netian red, transparent, then drew with char- 
coal, confirmed with pencil," etc. This red 
veil or stain is beautiful as a base on which to 
paint the greens of landscapes; it has a fine, 
mellowing, rich influence after a short time, 
and is very helpful and agreeable to the artist 
while working; but as a base for the skies 
and light parts, unless used with extreme thin- 
ness and transparency is sure to come through 
in time and injure the blues and sky notes; 
and if so thinly used, would have no marked 
influence for good or evil on the greens. 

In this I prefer Turner's method of the 
solid white, blue, and blue-black foundation, 
with a gradual approach to the final local 
color of each part of the picture. It is true 
that the character of Turner's landscapes and 
marines is such that I do not recollect at this 
moment one that contains a large amount of 
green for grass, trees, and foliage. This prob- 
lem of the green, I think, has been solved by 
Claude Lorraine and Cuyp. The fact that 
some of Inness's landscapes are showing a 
74 



TEMPERA 

tendency to darken beyond the mellow rich- 
ness so characteristic of his work, makes me 
feel the more that Turner's method is the 
safest and surest for maintaining the light and 
luminosity equally necessary to be maintained 
in landscape as in flesh. Cuyp shows the blue 
and white under the greens very distinctly, 
agreeably, and durably. All these devices 
must be used with judgment, and above all 
with common sense. Technically, painting is 
not a chance collection of materials it is a 
science, as Vibert says and a glance at three 
or four pictures by Titian, Rubens, or Velas- 
quez will show a thinking person that the 
stamp of the science of painting is upon them. 
And, further, no man must expect to paint 
like one of the Great Masters even if he had 
a minute description of their materials and 
methods by an eyewitness. The ideas herein 
given are merely the result of a very long 
and patient search for the Masters' methods 
and material, and each artist must and 
should work out his own artistic salvation. 
75 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

He should retain to the fullest extent his in- 
dividuality, even as Rubens did his, in face 
of Titian's great works, and Van Dyck his, 
in face of Rubens 's equally great works. Ve- 
lasquez calmly kept on in his technical meth- 
ods, in spite of the fact that Rubens, for 
nearly three months, did much work in his 
presence in Madrid, and that he was sur- 
rounded on all sides by the work of Titian, 
Tintoretto, and Paul Veronese. 



CHAPTER VI 



THE " VENETIAN SECRET ": " DEAD COLOR,' 
OR FIRST PAINTING FOR FLESH 



BEFORE proceeding farther afield it will 
be necessary to dwell upon the process or 
method and handling revealed in making stud- 
ies of Titian's work at Florence, Italy. There, 
although I had studied the Masters before 
with the " Venetian Secret " (as Sir Joshua 
Reynolds called it) in mind, I had made no 
actual copies. I now made copies with this 
special object in view. I soon found I could 
not produce the effects in the flesh or carna- 
tion parts, especially if I did not prepare or 
" dead color " such parts with heavy body 
color in a rather cold silvery or purplish tone 
in the first painting. Those parts had to be 
correctly drawn and modeled in tone with 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

black and white, with some kind of red 
added. 

The principle of dead coloring originated 
undoubtedly in the feeling of some artist, 
probably Giorgione, that if he could only sep- 
arate the drawing and modeling from the col- 
oring, and devote all his energy and attention 
to each in turn, and especially to the coloring 
of the flesh alone, oil painting would be more 
successful and pleasant ; and that is just what 
the principle of dead coloring has done, 
and much more. It has proved itself solid 
and permanent. It has separated the thick 
painting from the thin, the opaque from the 
semitransparent, and the semitransparent 
from the final transparent. Just note what 
advantages these are, making for quality, ease 
of handling, and, lastly, the actual time sav- 
ing. It has not apparently influenced the 
virility of the Masters detrimentally. On the 
contrary, there is every reason to believe that 
it has helped each strong man to enhance his 
individuality. Imagine a white canvas with 
78 



THE "VENETIAN SECRET" 

a drawing in thin, mild, yet distinct lines, 
showing through a transparent veil or flat 
stain whose surface is dry and hard. You 
have no fear of losing the drawing at any 
time; that is the first stage of separation of 
the drawing from the modeling and coloring. 
Then you paint your modeling of the flesh, 
let us say, in blue-black and white, in tone, 
and sufficiently thick and heavy of body in the 
light, sufficiently cold and silvery throughout, 
and the coldness modified with a suitable cau- 
tious addition of red only. 

After suitable drying we are ready to de- 
vote our attention to the coloring alone, the 
composition, drawing, and modeling being fin- 
ished. The principle underlying the use of 
dead coloring for flesh as against the modern 
direct method of getting the coloring of the 
sitter or model at once, or as quickly and 
directly as possible, is that in the " dead 
coloring," or " Venetian Secret Method," 
as Reynolds called it, the " dead color " 
or first painting is a thick bed or foun- 
79 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

dation of pigment composed only of white, 
black, and some kind of red that is chosen 
according to the complexion of the flesh to 
be painted; and when this has been thor- 
oughly dried the following paintings are 
then applied in very thin, transparent, veil- 
like tones, semitransparent, with or without 
white. A logical process from the first lumi- 
nous cold underpainting, and the less cold reds 
to still warmer, and finally to the yellows ; in 
short, the placing of one tint or tints on top 
of one or more other colors, the effect of each 
intended to be visible, as against the modern 
direct method of colors side by side. In paint- 
ing flesh in this method the great Venetians 
were sparing and exceedingly careful in the 
use of yellows, as all painting yellowed a bit, 
some very much so. But, and there is a but, 
this method hampers the freedom of spon- 
taneous creation, seemingly so necessary to 
the modern spirit of haste; though, on the 
other hand, it did not seem to hamper the 
Masters who practiced it, such as Titian, 
80 



THE "VENETIAN SECRET" 

Velasquez, Veronese, Tintoretto, Rubens, Van 
Dyck, Reynolds, and many others. 

The Venetian Method prevented a head, for 
instance, from being finished with the first 
painting; but, as Titian is reported to have 
said, " He who improvises cannot hope to 
make metrical verses." This expression was 
used in a technical sense, and it is at this point 
that another important fact must be noted, 
and the expression " metrical verses " has 
something to do with it. Oil painting has 
the characteristic that it either gets yellow, 
brown, or even black in a comparatively short 
time, or if properly executed it mellows and 
its tones become transparent. As each upper- 
most tone becomes transparent the next un- 
derneath becomes visible, and so on down to 
the ground of the canvas. Now, supposing 
your ground is pure white, your painting in 
time becomes more luminous. If your ground 
is dark red, such as the Bolognese school used, 
the whole picture will eventually disappear in 
dark red. If your ground is dark gray, your 
81 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

picture will become dingy and somber. Leav- 
ing the ground for the present, we find that if 
the painting is well done that is, each color 
note placed in exactly its right place, and not 
a light messed over a dark, and a cold tone 
over a warm, etc. in time the beauty of the 
picture will be greatly enhanced. 

If, however, this is not the case, and lights 
are on darks and cold tones on warm, color, 
light, and harmony will be destroyed. When- 
ever a tone of color warmer and darker is 
hidden underneath another, the upper is sure 
to be sacrificed; this is absolutely proved be- 
yond question. Then, in fact, as Titian says, 
we have no ' ' metrical verses, ' ' and the result 
is in time sure to be an uninteresting brown, 
dingy picture, and then the well-meaning but 
often stupid cleaners get at it and finish the 
suicide. The " Venetian Method," it must 
be understood, is easier, and the results more 
assured for posterity in the hands of a skilled 
artist in that method, but it is exceedingly 
difficult to one who has been used to the 
82 



THE "VENETIAN SECRET" 

modern direct method. For you draw and 
model and make a bed, so to speak, with a 
monotone silvery gray having a very small 
quantity of red added. It is a constant trans- 
lation of color values, light and dark, with 
correct drawing and modeling, not only in 
correct values, but also in the very important 
application of thick or heavy paint. The 
lights are graded down to the thinner or less 
heavy paint in the darks. But if the founda- 
tion color as a whole is too thin, the thin after 
paintings would then leave the total final effect 
too weak. Or if then the after paintings or 
glazes are painted as a whole thicker, to give 
the picture the solidity the first painting 
lacked, then the final transparency is lost, and 
the final effect of the dead coloring is reduced 
to nothing. 

But, on the other hand, Rubens would paint 
so exceedingly thin in the darks and in the 
half tones that he could afford to paint the 
lights comparatively thin and yet have 
strength and virility. This all, of course, ap- 
83 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

plies to the painting of the flesh only, but the 
principle may be extended for draperies, ob- 
jects, and landscapes. This principle must, 
however, have an exception and be inverted in 
the case of painting black satin or other very 
dark draperies or objects, as shown most 
plainly on Van Dyck's masterly portraits. On 
the canvas ground where the black or dark 
drapery is to be, a thin, transparent, broad, 
flat, warm tint is placed, and your black 
drapery, in more or less cool tint, is painted 
complete, drawn and modeled with the brush 
' ' alia prima, ' ' or finished with one first direct 
painting as near finality as possible, and cor- 
rect in tone, color, modeling, and drawing, and 
especially not too dark, as it darkens a bit 
afterwards. Titian, however, painted blacks 
more thickly, without regard for the ground, 
and in this respect I prefer Rubens and Van 
Dyck, because their black draperies make the 
whole picture appear less heavy. Then in 
painting red draperies a first or foundation 
painting is made in red, on the same principle 
84 



THE "VENETIAN SECRET" 

as dead coloring for flesh, embodying correct 
drawing and modeling of the folds, lights and 
darks, etc., only not quite such care is neces- 
sary; but the red first painting must be a 
trifle colder and lighter than it is to be finally, 
and with the necessary bed or thickness of 
paint. After this has dried thoroughly, a 
deeper, richer red, as transparent and minus 
body as possible, is applied all over, the ex- 
treme lights and darks reenforced, and so on. 
The same principle applies to yellow or blue 
draperies, and for others it must be intelli- 
gently modified or extended. For green the 
method is, of course, to " dead color " blue 
or bluish, and veil or glaze with warmer yellow 
tints. A little thought and invention as well 
as the study of the Masters will make beauti- 
ful combinations and color effects. These are 
the merest outlines as to the principles ; there 
may be other colors added to those suggested 
above, according to the artist's taste and abil- 
ity to bring out a harmonious whole, which 
should always be the object in view. 
85 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

The process of " dead coloring " for flesh 
does not necessarily preclude the rest of the 
picture being painted " alia prima," as shown 
above for black drapery. The same applies 
to the problem of hair, and if that of a woman, 
and of a kind that changes often in form, as 
long hair is sure to do, the problem must be 
solved by painting it ' ' alia prima, " or at first 
trial completed. But before this is attempted 
its immediate environment should be prac- 
tically completed, so its tone, form, and color 
values can be more surely judged and placed 
to stay untouched; except, perhaps, when it 
is dry to give it a most thin, transparent glaze 
or veil of some warmer tint, if it should hap- 
pen to appear as a whole mass too cold. A 
most beautiful, I might say the most beauti- 
ful example of hair painting in the world is 
that of Titian's " Saint Mary Magdalen," in 
Florence. It is painted on wood, with much 
of the white ground showing through, and in 
this picture Titian's technie resembles that of 
Kubens in a very striking manner. The great 
86 



THE "VENETIAN SECRET" 

waves of glorious hair are freshly, easily, and 
beautifully painted, in mass as well as in 
detail. I should not be at all surprised if 
this picture had inspired Rubens to paint his 
11 Christ and the Sinner," now in Munich; 
Rubens 's Magdalen has blond hair and the 
attitude is not quite the same, but the ability 
with which the problem has been solved is 
very nearly equal, with the choice slightly in 
favor of Titian. This manner of painting 
must be often applied to very loose or flying 
drapery. The " Venetian Method " requires 
greater care in the inception of a portrait or 
picture. There can be no changes made of 
any importance to the contours or forms or 
modeling after the coloring has been begun 
without injuring the beauty, durability, and 
purity of the technic. In short, again no 
' ' metrical verses. ' ' The teehnic of a painting 
of flesh done in this manner acquires a cast 
over the whole surface that the modern man- 
ner cannot give. " The effect of the whole," 
as Reynolds says, is much more easily and 
7 87 



naturally maintained. The effect of a modern 
portrait head after a short lapse of time, say 
twenty-five to fifty years, is, compared to a 
similar head by the Masters, either very weak, 
yellowish brown, and uninteresting, or coarse, 
spotty, and inharmonious. They are mostly 
weak, for they have not that united bed of 
uniform luminous color to hold them up. The 
effect of time, when the painting has been 
done by the " Venetian Method/' is to im- 
prove the picture, for in spite of everything a 
picture will and should mellow somewhat, and 
even yellow a little. The superiority lies there- 
in that as the outer thin layers, veils, or glazes 
become dryer and more transparent, the sil- 
very, I may almost say silvery violet of the 
" dead coloring " appears and very prettily 
counteracts the yellow, and gives the picture 
new life, enhances the color and luminosity, 
and makes it retain a permanent interest, as we 
see in the works of the Masters. Well-painted 
pictures are like good wine, they improve with 
age. But of pictures painted in the modern 
88 



THE "VENETIAN SECRET" 

method, the most of them are sure to reach the 
brownish stage, deteriorate, and lose quality. 
Perhaps an exceedingly small percentage will 
survive. The adoption of the " Venetian 
Method " is not necessarily going to produce 
good pictures, except in the hands of an artist 
of ability, refinement, energy, and vitality ; for 
no fine, great work is produced without some 
such combination, much practice and skill 
being always necessary. 



89 



CHAPTER VII 

THREE COLORS 

THERE has been more or less talk of a lost 
art, and sometimes I was almost convinced that 
the methods and materials of the Old Masters 
were lost. But now I am sure we have nearly 
all the colors they had, and we have many 
more, good and bad, that they did not have. 
I am also convinced that the very wealth, 
variety, and brilliance of modern colors has 
been a serious drawback. The Masters cer- 
tainly painted with fewer colors; this has 
been said often before, but every artist that 
adopts the ' ' Venetian Method ' ' will see how 
logical and necessary the use of few colors 
only at a time becomes. When painting flesh, 
three colors at once is a high average mixture, 
and four seems the limit; but these were all 
90 



THREE COLORS 

so pure, fresh, and carefully prepared in the 
studios that there was no time for them to get 
half-dry or rancid; they were not likely to 
change afterwards, and there was no substance 
introduced to prevent them from drying too 
soon, as is a commercial necessity to-day with 
the manufacturers' tube colors. The Masters 
used their colors as fresh as possible every 
day, and the oil was, as Dr. De Meyern is re- 
ported to have been told by Van Dyck him- 
self, " the most important object of care on 
the part of the artist ; it was necessary that it 
should be of the freshest, most limpid, clear, 
and almost colorless kind." 

Marco Boschini * relates that Titian said, 
" Whoever would be a painter should be well 
acquainted with three colors and have per- 
fect command over them (" haverli in man "), 
namely, white, red, and black." How much 
truth there may be in the secondhand and 
possibly distorted evidence of Signer Boschi- 

* Le ricche minere della pittura. Veneaia, 1674. 
91 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

ni's as to Titian's methods of work and say- 
ings, I will leave to the reader. But in this 
case the knowledge and importance hinted 
at of a particular use of white, black, and red 
is sustained by the researches and practice of 
another very celebrated painter, Sir Joshua 
Reynolds, who experimented and practiced on 
the theory of dead coloring, often, it is said, 
rubbing down an old master to see what kind 
of dead coloring was underneath. As his 
diaries reveal, he conducted a patient and very 
persistent search, extending over many years, 
and attended at times with very great success, 
judging by the beauty of some of his work. 
But his search for a transparent, durable, and 
easily handled vehicle or medium has evi- 
dently been a failure, or he did not recognize 
it when he had it ; and the reason of his fail- 
ure in this respect is due in part to a false 
theory of the Masters' medium or results. 

To return to Boschini's evidence. Many 
attempts have been made in Italy, and doubt- 
less elsewhere in Europe, by painters and 
92 



THREE COLORS 

restorers to discover on Titian's paintings 
where an injury or other chance favored, to 
study his method in painting flesh, and nearly 
all have arrived at the same conclusion as to 
the principle of the method that is, the use 
of a cold, silvery, rather thick or heavy bed 
or foundation for first painting, yet with a 
reddish cast. This seems, at all events, to 
bear out Signor Boschini as to Titian's re- 
ported use of white, red, and black. Judg- 
ing from the unfinished study by Titian, in 
Florence, of the Pesaro Madonna and Child 
in the Church of the Frari at Venice, the 
foundation color or first painting on a great 
part of the study is obviously left untouched, 
as originally painted, and it has a strong red- 
dish cast. This red, allowing a slight change 
for time, was to me unfamiliar; it was not 
like our modern madder, because it seemed 
to have more body, and not like vermilion or 
Indian red, because the former had not the 
right tone of color and the other had too much 
body or heaviness, and both madder and In- 
93 



dian red were too raw and powerful in the 
light parts where heavily charged with white. 
The whole canvas of the Pesaro Madonna 
study appeared to be thinly stained with this 
red, and in parts, such as the drapery and 
hair, much more strongly stained with the 
same color. It is probable that the red used 
was either a peculiar crude madder, a red 
earth, a combination of reds, or a madder 
modified with a bone brown or black. 

In his treatise on painting, written in 1437, 
forty years before Titian was born, Cennini 
mentions a red earth, called sinopia, as fre- 
quently used. This may have had the soft 
purple in the half tones and shadows, and the 
silvery tone in the light parts when mixed 
with white and used as the ' ' dead coloring ' ' 
for flesh that we see in the Pesaro study. But 
the use of this red or other reds in the dead 
coloring must be a matter of taste and temper- 
ament. Veronese's work indicates Indian red, 
Rubens seemed fondest of vermilion when he 
painted in that method, Van Dyck used in his 
94 



THREE COLORS 

' ' dead color " at an early stage of his artistic 
development a far stronger red, which he af- 
terwards abandoned for a much milder tone, 
Velasquez's foundation color suggests vermil- 
ion, and Reynolds, toward the end of his life, 
evidently made use of Indian red. In one of 
Tintoretto's largest pictures at Venice, when 
I saw it, the foundation color was almost en- 
tirely exposed. It seemed to be composed only 
of black and white. I say seemed, because 
ninety-five per cent of the after painting had 
disappeared or been ' ' cleaned ' ' off, and visi- 
bly only black and white remained. I had an 
experience which makes me think that possibly 
it was the same with him. I dead-colored 
a portrait of myself with white, black, and 
madder, and then unwisely gave it a thin 
coating of wax, and upon this I finished with 
glazings and semitransparent layers. Within 
a year the paint as it dried, having no longer 
a secure foothold on the wax, had to let go, 
and began to peel off. I made a thorough ex- 
amination and was surprised to discover that 
95 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

not a trace of the madder in the dead col- 
oring remained ! I had made a written mem- 
orandum (as was my invariable custom) at 
the time I painted it, so there was no mistake 
or illusion, and no artist friend of mine could 
discover a trace of the so-called madder in the 
" black and white," which I still have! The 
same results, undoubtedly from similar causes, 
have occurred in many of Sir Joshua Reyn- 
olds 's portraits. At another place I will en- 
deavor to show why black and white alone, as 
dead coloring, is unwise and pernicious. 

To return to our search. There has come 
down to us a description of Titian's method 

of work in the last period of his life by 
Titian 

the before-mentioned Marco Boschini, 

who had the description from Palma the 
younger, " who had the good fortune to re- 
ceive the valuable teaching of Titian himself. ' ' 
The Palma description says: " Titian based 
his pictures with such a mass of color that 
it served as a base to build on afterwards. 
The first penciling with a full brush and thick, 
96 



THREE COLORS 

heavy color, the half tones in pure red earth, 
the lights with white, then broken with the 
same brush with red, black, and yellow; in 
this manner there were four pencilings for a 
whole figure; between the pencilings more or 
less time would elapse. It was contrary to his 
habit to finish a painting consecutively, be- 
cause, as he said, ' a poet who improvises can- 
not hope to make metrical verses.' The con- 
tours and modeling would often only be fixed 
with the third or fourth penciling. Then be- 
gan the thin glazing and semiglazing and 
finishing. ' ' 

Palma has also handed down to us two im- 
portant sayings of Titian's, the one about the 
three colors, white, black, and red, already 
quoted, and the following, which, for the pur- 
pose of identification, I will call, say, num- 
ber two : " To arrive at lifelike flesh tint the 
carnation should not be finished ' alia prima, ' 
but different tints should be laid one over the 
other." Of my own knowledge many able 
men have given the Palma description re- 
97 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

peated tests, and it has been decided that with 
black and white, and with any color whatever 
coming under the name of red earth in com- 
bination with a yellow, be it yellow ochre or 
even a stronger yellow there is nothing to 
recommend the Palma system for color-get- 
ting, time-saving, durability, or any other 
quality that could distinguish it from any or- 
dinary modern four-color process. The de- 
scription would fit in with what we know and 
see in Titian's work if we left out the yellow. 
The " dead color " of the study of the infant 
Christ for the Pesaro Madonna not only has 
no yellow, but even might be produced with a 
certain kind of red and white alone, and even, 
without any black ( ! ), or at least with an ex- 
tremely small quantity, and what a fine tone it 
is to build on, cold, yet not black and white. 
But what kind of red it is would be difficult 
to ascertain; probably very scarce like the 
true ultramarine or no longer obtainable. 

Assuming that the Palma description is a 
true and errorless statement, and that no acci- 
98 



THREE COLORS 

dental mistake has crept in, we know quite 
certainly that it refers to Titian's method 
practiced toward the end of his life. This 
latter method, when Titian made use of it, 
is easily identified by an artist, and Du Fres- 
noy, in his history, says that " the pictures 
which he painted in the beginning and in the 
declension of his age are of a dry and mean 
manner. ' ' They resemble the modern method 
of direct painting in that the last touches of 
the brush produce almost the entire visible 
effect, whereas in his middle manner, and 
more beautiful technic, two, three, or more 
tones of color were placed one on top of the 
other, and the presence of each tone and color 
was felt in a soft, mysterious, blended whole. 
In his latest method the colors were indis- 
criminately and heavily mixed in the final 
brush stroke. What, in the Palma descrip- 
tion, the tone of the red and yellow could 
have been, can remain only a matter of specu- 
lation. The early habit of giving the first 
paintings a very cold appearance for the after 
99 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

warmer veils and glazes would inevitably 
cause him to use his four colors of such a kind 
and manner as to produce a very cool effect, 
even if yellow were present with the red. Now, 
no red ochre or red earth known to us, with 
an equal-keyed yellow, as yellow ochre, would, 
used in the ordinary manner, produce a cool 
first painting that would be of any use at all as 
a dead color, for a glaze of the same color as 
the paint on which it is placed is of no value. 
The effect is only to increase the quantity of 
paint, so we are forced to assume that the red 
was of a different shade, and also the yellow ; 
that is, both of a much cooler tendency. The 
red, as Palma said, was a " pure red earth," 
and was probably the ancient sinopia ; the yel- 
low, a color somewhat like a fine yellow ochre 
keyed up with a very small bit of some fine, 
strong, yellow, like cadmium and white for 
instance. These three colors then white, red, 
yellow, with blue-black as the fourth should 
give the necessarily cool first painting that 
approaches closely to the final appearance the 
100 



THREE COLORS 

flesh is to have, and comes nearer to the first 
paintings that Rubens employed, which were 
far less cold and heavy than the ' ' dead color- 
ing ' ' of the Pesaro Madonna study, yet main- 
tained enough of the silvery grays to enable 
a placing thereon of still warmer finishing 
touches. 



101 



CHAPTER VIII 

TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

MY own opinion, after much thought, study, 
and analysis, is that the Palma-Boschini de- 
scription does not mean exactly what it ap- 
pears to say. An artist like Titian, who prac- 
tices constantly nearly forty-five years in one 
system of painting, the results of which have 
brought him wealth and fame unheard of be- 
fore in the world's history, is not likely to 
make any radical change. The change in his 
technic is said to have occurred in about his 
seventieth year, and in the natural order of 
things most men would have no technic left 
at all at that age; but Titian had a fine phy- 
sique, and so he kept right on. Still, his work 
shows the threescore-and-ten mark, and I am 
sure his eyesight was not as it had been in his 
102 



TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

younger days, nor was it to be expected that 
the man of seventy or more should have the 
strength or vitality necessary to paint the 
more delicate coloring on the completed dead- 
color base. It was inevitable that there should 
have been a change, and what more natural 
than that the part of the painting which re- 
quired the finest eyesight and the steadiest 
hand should become coarser, thicker, lose its 
definite character to some extent and become 
somewhat vague? 

Therefore I am convinced that the Palma- 
Boschini description was intended to convey 
the impression of the use of the foundation 
color without the yellow. I have seen a num- 
ber of English, German, and French transla- 
tions of the Palma-Boschini description, and 
no two convey the same impression ; and even 
some Italian writers gave different versions of 
what was actually done. The writers are 
generally ignorant of technical matters, and 
the artists are unable to express themselves 
with clearness. Now, if we take that part of 
8 103 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

the Palma-Boschini description, as follows: 
" Titian based his pictures with such a mass 
of color that it served as a base to build on 
after the first penciling with a full brush 
and thick, heavy color, the half tones in pure 
red earth, the lights with white, etc." Thus 
far the description would fit the study of the 
Pesaro Madonna, for instance ; and if we were 
sure that at this juncture he put his work 
aside for a thorough drying, assuming it was 
advanced enough to be correct in form and 
modeling, we would be sure we had a very good 
description of his manner and principle of 
work, for the expression which follows, ' ' then 
broken with the same brush with red, black, 
and yellow," would describe the logical se- 
quence exactly. In my judgment that is what 
Palma meant to convey, and this is what must 
have followed if there was any truth in the 
first of the Titian sayings reported by this 
same Palma and this same Boschini, before 
quoted and repeated here " He who would 
be a painter needs to know but three colors, 
104 



TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

white, black, and red, and to have them well in 
hand (' haverli in man ')." That this was a 
true saying of Titian's I believe, for his work 
coincides with it, and that there is an unin- 
tentional mystification in the words " then 
broken with the same brush," for that con- 
veys the idea that the preceding work was 
still wet, and that with the same brush more 
wet color, of which yellow was a part, was 
then incorporated into the red, white (and 
black) " dead coloring," which, of course, 
effectually destroyed it as " dead color." 
Then, again, we must not forget the second 
Titian-Palma-Boschini saying, " to arrive at 
lifelike flesh tint the carnation should not be 
finished alia prima, but different tints should 
l)e laid one over the other." As I have before 
explained, if yellow is admitted into a ' ' dead 
color " or first painting every quality that is 
absolutely necessary for a ' ' dead coloring ' ' is 
lost namely, luminosity and a suitably cold 
contrasting tone. There is no logic, no sci- 
ence, no beauty, and no " lifelike flesh tint." 
105 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

If those colors containing yellow and red, 
and necessarily alike in character, are placed 
one over the other the results are far dif- 
ferent and very inferior to that mysterious 
beauty obtained by a judicious use of the 
" dead color." There is a blending and yet 
a strong contrast that only the superimposi- 
tion, ' ' or laying one over the other, ' ' of colors 
that are transparent can give. Then, again, 
Titian himself said emphatically, " the car- 
nation should not be finished alia prima, 
but different tints laid one over the other." 
With the proper " dead color " your cold 
silvery red or violet is underneath, and the 
warmer, less pronounced reds and yellows laid 
over them in gradations advancing to the 
proper warmth and wealth of color that na- 
ture has. I believe that the preponderance 
of evidence, as the judges say, is in favor of 
my interpretation, and that we must assume 
that Titian 's work was done on the same prin- 
ciple throughout his life, though not so well 
toward the end. There were times long after 
106 



TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

1545 or 1550, when the change in manner first 
became apparent, when paintings came from 
his studio that had the same style of handling, 
definition, color, etc., that his early work had. 
But we must not forget that his son Orazio, 
his brother Francesco, and that mysteri- 
ous and industrious relative Cesare Vecellio 
worked in his studio and may have been able 
to produce under Titian 's direction more care- 
ful work than he was capable of doing himself 
at that age. They had been trained by him 
for many years, and knew his manner and 
technic, and it was to their financial interest 
to imitate Titian's manner as nearly as possi- 
ble, since they could never have hoped to sell 
their work as well (or rival Titian) with their 
own signatures in the corners of their pic- 
tures as they could with the magic ' ' Titianus 
Fecit " there. 

Titian had the reputation of jealously 

guarding his methods and practice. His 

studio was a sort of family art corporation. 

We know from undisputed facts that at least 

107 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

three men helped him in his studio in every 
phase of his work, from the various arduous 
manual labors to drawing and painting. His 
relative, Cesare Vecellio, helped him publicly 
in Innsbruck, in October, 1548, by painting 
and sketching three of the seven portraits of 
the daughters of the Emperor Ferdinand, a 
feat they both performed in the exceedingly 
short time of seventeen days! And Titian 
was seventy-one years of age at the time! 
They must have had a very good method of 
work, and excepting only the one account 
and that the version that Palma-Boschini have 
handed down the corridors of time, and which 
is secondhand at that there is no description 
of his method or practice, not even any sec- 
ondhand or hearsay that carries the slightest 
evidence of having even a grain of fact. 

The impression made by reading Titian's 
many letters shows the great artist dunning 
delinquent kings, tricky, dishonorable nobles, 
and insisting on his very well earned pay, and 
for which some historians and others have 
108 



TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

presumed to call him avaricious and even 
mean. These letters stamp his character in 
worldly matters as being that of a cautious, 
careful man. He had to make his way at first 
against powerful rivals, and all his life his 
work had to maintain its superiority against 
very able men, and before his sun had set, 
that of Paul Veronese and the aggressive 
Tintoretto had risen. There is no evidence 
that he was on very intimate terms with any 
other artist outside his own family except, 
possibly, Paul Veronese, whom he assisted to 
the unusual extent of publicly recommending 
as against Tintoretto for some important work 
toward the end of his own life. This may 
have been a little politics, since Tintoretto 
lowered himself and his art by doing public 
work for nearly no compensation, and we 
know that Titian had a quarrel with his best 
friend, Pietro Aretino, on Tintoretto's ac- 
count. Whatever may have been the cause 
for the change in technic at the latter end of 
Titian 's life be it haste, failing strength, eye- 
109 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

sight, or impatience at the necessary delays 
for drying when he employed his " Venetian 
Method" or manner his powerful young com- 
petitors, Paul Veronese, Tintoretto, and the 
Bassanos, have not followed him in his change 
of technic ; they clung to the Venetian Method, 
and time has justified their choice, for of all 
Titian's work, that showing the characteristics 
of this method is certainly the most beautiful, 
and its durability in comparison to any other 
manner cannot be questioned. 

Going back again to our researches, we meet 
with indications of what we are in search of 
in a description, secondhand though it 
Veronese * s > ^ ^ e principle governing Paul Ver- 
onese's technical methods of work. We 
must keep in mind the friendly relations be- 
tween Veronese and Titian personally, that 
Veronese had earned Titian's respect as an 
artist, and also the very great quality and 
beautiful coloring of Veronese's pictures, 
peculiar to him individually. 

The description given by Boschini, and by 
110 



TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

him obtained from Veronese 's son, relates that 
" he painted everything first in middle tint, 
and on this he touched both lights and darks, 
leaving the middle tint visible everywhere be- 
tween them, as it was first prepared. The 
middle tint was laid in opaque color." Let 
us examine closely what we have here in the 
words, " he painted everything in opaque 
middle tint first." What would an artist call 
" middle tint " in flesh? Viewing a head in 
a studio light we are forced to conclude that 
the predominant or " middle tint " is a red- 
dish or violet silvery tone, and this has a 
transparent covering of warmer tones, leaning 
first to the warmer reds, then to the still 
warmer yellowish or golden. We have a 
foundation coloring or ' ' middle tint ' ' of our 
own, made up of white, black, and red, and our 
' ' middle tint " or " dead color ' ' is also paint- 
ed in opaque color, so our theory of practice 
is founded on a close observation of nature, 
a close analysis of the works of the Great 
Masters, and thus coincides exactly with the 
111 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

description given by the junior Veronese to 
Boschini of the elder Veronese's technical 
method. It further fits in completely with 
methods described by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 
his private diaries, and of which I will speak 
more in detail later on. A foundation tint of 
red, white, and black is the only construction 
of the words ' ' middle tint ' ' that will give us 
technical success. Success by the use of the 
black, white, and red middle tint in various 
degrees has been attained magnificently by 
Reynolds. 

If, therefore, we admit yellow to the ' ' mid- 
dle tint, ' ' it will then be no middle tint in fact, 
as the admission of yellow robs it of every 
beauty, system, or logic, and reduces the meth- 
od to the level of an ordinary modern method, 
with modern results and modern effects. 
With yellow in the first middle tint, the sci- 
ence, logic, and beauty of superimposition, or 
laying one tint over the other, is lost. With 
the yellow, the beauty obtained by placing one 
semitransparent color on a heavy-bodied light 
112 



TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

tone, and a very thin tone as a final glaze, is lost. 
With yellow in the first painting the labor is 
increased, the unity of the flesh is lost, the final 
effects are chance effects, and the artistic prob- 
lem is made much more difficult. The attempt 
to systematize the process with a middle tint or 
dead coloring that contains yellow has never 
been a success, and the stability of its finished 
appearance is very questionable. With a good 
middle tint or foundation color, the chance 
of placing a dark tone where there is finally 
to be a light one, a warm tone where there is 
finally to be a cold, is reduced to a minimum. 
With the yellow in the first foundation, we 
preclude the cool luminosity which a painting 
needs as it gets old, more transparent, a trifle 
darker, and a trifle yellower. With a dead 
coloring without yellow the lighter, faintly 
purplish middle tint or dead coloring shines 
through and counteracts the tendency of dry- 
ing and age. Here we note the difference be- 
tween Rubens and Veronese Rubens 's work 
as a whole being more golden and lighter in 
113 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

key, while Veronese's work is a trifle darker 
and has a more faintly purplish hue. 

Returning to the Veronese-Bosch ini descrip- 
tion, and the paragraph " and on this he 
touched both lights and darks, leaving the 
middle tint visible everywhere between them 
as it was first prepared," the only interpre- 
tation of this paragraph is that as in the fin- 
ished picture the " middle tint was visible 
everywhere," it follows that the " lights and 
darks " placed thereon were necessarily thin 
and transparent, and that the first painting, 
" middle tint," or " dead color," was neces- 
sarily heavy and thick of body and much cold- 
er in color, to give the contrast and make its 
presence felt. 

Rubens must have used a lighter, less pur- 
ple red in his first foundation than Veronese, 
and we see that he was very sparing of 
ki 8 shadows. His first painting alto- 
gether had less actual body, consequent- 
ly there was not so much of it " to come 
through " afterwards, and in turn permitted 
114 



TITIAN'S PRINCIPLES UNCHANGED 

the white ground to have a greater influence 
in elevating the key of light. The more 
golden tone of his pictures is caused by the 
warm umber veil, and the milder use of the 
first silvery violet or purplish dead-color 
foundation. From what we know of Rubens 
we must conclude that h,e- did not main- 
tain much secrecy about his work, and had 
many pupils. On the other hand, only one of 
them, Van Dyck, seems to have had his entire 
confidence, and his work viewed from the tech- 
nical standpoint, though showing a different 
individuality and a much colder tendency in 
color, is technically just as fine and every bit 
as durable and beautiful. Van Dyck's early 
work shows of course the Rubens technic in 
a pronounced golden, final effect. Very likely 
at that time he had made use of the same 
ground and veil, and the same red in the 
foundation color. When he went to Italy it 
became at once apparent that the stronger red 
of Titian's " dead color " appealed to him, 
was adopted and used in many pictures and 
115 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

portraits. This red became so conspicuous in 
some of them as to be almost a blemish, and, 
so to speak, not a case of " haverli in man," 
having well in hand, as Titian used to say. 
However, he must have realized that it was 
getting beyond control, and so he dropped the 
" Van Dyck Red " very suddenly and adopt- 
ed a tri-color of his own, which was more 
silvery, natural, and beautiful. 



116 



CHAPTER IX 

THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

IT seems proper before leaving this subject 
of ' ' dead color, " ' ' foundation color, ' ' or the 
" Venetian Secret," as Reynolds called it, to 
add that flesh painted thus very rarely shows 
a brush mark, the result being there, and not 
in the least indicating the method. It may 
be done powerfully or weakly. It only shows 
strongly that it is not done in the ordinary 
modern alia prima manner, and many an 
artist has stood before an Old Master and 
had the same feeling we have when a master 
in legerdemain has done a surprising and mys- 
terious trick before our eyes ; that there is no 
wizardry about it we know, yet it escapes a 
logical explanation. 

The seemingly insoluble mystery that envel- 

117 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

oped the Old Masters' method for so many 
years was caused mainly by the fact that while 
the modern artist paints with all his power 
and skill what he sees, the Old Master with 
his red, white, and black did not attempt to 
render all that he saw before him; he first 
made a translation or " dead coloring," and 
then gave it life. Technically the Old Master 
wrought as much with his mind as with his 
eye and hand, and when you come to under- 
stand and compare his method with that of the 
modern painter you will be amazed at and 
cannot help admiring the ingenuity, simplic- 
ity, and durability of his technic. It is so 
simple and ingenious that it is no wonder it 
has practically remained a secret for nearly 
four centuries. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds gave fifteen public dis- 
courses or lectures on art, and wrote much on 
the same subject. The discourses were 

Sir Joa ua technical and intended to teach, but in 
Reynolds 

all his public utterances there is not one 
hint of that of which his diaries were full 
118 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

when found after his death. His diaries 
prove that his mind was constantly occupied 
with technical problems, and it is very likely 
that had he been absolutely certain as to a 
method and mediums he would have made it 
public before he died. He did say the ancients 
were great, if only because they painted with 
four colors. He may have thought that if he 
hinted anything about the technical researches 
and experiments he was making, the young 
students would forget to learn how to draw, 
model, paint, or see color; and further, that 
some of his very able contemporaries, like 
Gainsborough or Romney, might run him a 
better race. It seems probable Gainsborough 
had discovered one of the most important 
secrets of the Masters that Reynolds never 
learned, and which I have not yet touched on 
and will speak of more in detail later. 

During his life Reynolds made many, 

changes in his manner of painting. Most of 

his pictures are like dark ghosts of what they 

must have been. Where his first painting was 

9 119 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

simply black and white, some of the remains 
of his portraits suggest Tintoretto, because 
they were dead-colored like his. If there was 
red in the " dead color " of his pictures, it 
has often vanished, leaving cold wrecks, with 
only faint suggestions of their former beauty. 
In his lifetime Reynolds heard complaints 
from his patrons about the changes which took 
place in his pictures, and he said in effect that 
he always did his best, and that there was no 
one who could teach him. In his search for 
the Masters' secrets he did not hesitate to rub 
down an Old Master to see what the method 
of procedure was. He produced many beauti- 
ful and thoroughly English portraits, and his 
practice, in principle, was founded on the 
methods of the Masters ; but his vehicle or me- 
dium, employed from about 1755 to the end 
of his life, was never entirely logical or 
durable. 

This, of course, with a very few exceptions. 
The pictures produced were very fine to look 
at for a time immediately after being fin- 
120 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

ished but alas ! they did not stay as intended. 
His error was the theory that the beauty of 
the Masters' color was produced by the use 
of a varnish medium, to which, perforce, he 
was compelled to add wax to enable a sufficient 
freedom of handling, and possibly with the 
idea, too, of providing a protection to the color. 
He held fast to this theory all his life, but 
never was there a feeling of absolute security 
in its infallibility, as is so conclusively proved 
by his continual use of every conceivable com- 
bination or mixture. No sooner did he make 
note of having the real thing, than another 
would be tried, necessarily, because he would 
discover the first not to be that which he was 
in search of. He had no Masters' traditions 
to guide him. He was a pioneer, a Columbus 
without a pilot, sailing the seas trying to dis- 
cover the Old Masters ' elixir of creation but 
he never found it ; yet like Columbus he found 
much else, both good and bad. In one of his 
memorandum books he states that he " dead- 
colored " or founded his pictures, at that time 
121 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

(July, 1766), with blue-black, lake, and white 
and probably in most cases, without his 
suspecting it, the lake was very fugitive. 
In September of the same year he proves 
that he can do without the lake in the first 
foundation, for this brief note appears, 
' ' Lake, yellow ochre, and ult. Dead col. with- 
out lake Probatum Sept. 1766." Yes, he 
proved it as far as the production goes, but 
tune was an evil enemy to the black-and-white 
' * dead color, ' ' for it is bound to appear sooner 
or later and injure the color, light, and har- 
mony. 

Then, at another time, according to his own 
diary, he falls into the other extreme of chilli- 
ness, as, for instance, this note in his own 
Italian: "Jan. 22, 1770. Sono stabilito in 
maniere di dipingere, primo e secondo o con 
olio, o capivi, gli colori solo nero, ultram, e 
biacca, secondo medisimo, ultimo con giallo 
okero e lacca e nero e ultramarine senza biacca 
ritoccato con poco biacca e gli altri colori." 
That is: "I am settled in my manner of 
122 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

painting; first and second either with oil or 
copaiba, the colors only black, ultramarine, 
and white ; second the same ; last, with yellow 
ochre and lake and black and ultramarine 
without white, retouched with a little white 
and the other colors." He was then forty- 
seven years old. The natural inference, from 
the words " I am settled in my manner of 
painting," is that he thought he had found 
the ' ' Venetian Secret ' ' of dead coloring with 
a suitable medium. The foundation coloring 
was so very cold, that except perhaps in cases 
of outdoor portraits like Van Dyck's of 
Charles I with the attendants, horse, and land- 
scape, now in the Louvre at Paris he soon 
found it was unsuitable for studio portraits, 
and therefore a justifiable doubt arose. The 
foundation color of black, white, and ultra- 
marine is so extreme in the cold that if Titian 
or Rubens could have looked over his shoul- 
der they would have gone back to their graves 
to keep warm. 

It is very probable, indeed, that the neces- 
123 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

sarily high keyed, very cold " dead color " 
underneath a fugitive red, in a very short time 
produced the effect of a faded picture. Al- 
though he said he was established in his man- 
ner of painting, in less than a month another 
memorandum, dated " Feb. 6, 1770," reads, 
" Primo olio biacca e nero, secondo biacca e 
lacca, terza capivi lacca e giallo e nero, senza 
biacca." Here the first painting is just white 
and black, and the second painting, to bring in 
the red, is composed of white and lake; the 
third, lake, yellow, and black without white. 
He has dropped the ultramarine, and while 
the process or method is good as far as it goes, 
in comparison with Titian's or Veronese's 
manner it has the very serious fault of black 
and white instead of a color foundation. The 
introduction of red in the first painting estab- 
lishes it as a work of color and helps the paint- 
ing, as time passes and reveals the ground 
more, to maintain its color effect. 

Soon after he falls into the use of colors and 
mediums that insure destruction to his work. 
124 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

The variety of material and method is remark- 
able ; but as most of it was injurious, it will 
serve no purpose to go over it all here. But 
in November, 1773, we have this note in his 
diary, " Dr. Barnard, 1st black and white 
2d vermilion and white dry. 3d varnished 
and retouched. ' ' Here, although we still have 
the pernicious black and white, we have also a 
return to the vermilion and a dropping of the 
questionable lake. Then follows another re- 
lapse into bad colors and worse mediums, so 
far as his diaries show. In August, 1779, we 
have another entry, showing a return to the 
safe and durable, but so far as the medium 
is concerned, still on the false theory : ' ' Aug. 
1779 Hope, my own copy, first oil, then Venice 
T. cera. verm, white and black, poi varnished 
with Venice and cera, Light red and black, 
thickly varnished." This indicates still the 
black and white in oil, and alas ! then the use 
of Venice turpentine and wax, with his thin 
semitransparent layer of vermilion, white, 
and black, then varnished with the same me- 
125 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

dium and probably with a light red and black, 
and then thickly varnished. 

Of course this is not good, but it has one 
compensation, and that is the introduction of 
light red, a cheap, durable, and, lastly, a 
beautiful color. To get the thin, light red 
glaze effect, he was no longer compelled to 
resort to such combinations as gamboge and 
lake or gamboge and vermilion with varnish. 
Now we come to one of his latest diary 
entries, dated 1781, eleven years before his 
death, and in the same year as his journey to 
Flanders and Holland : "1781. Manner, Col- 
ors to be used Indian red, light red, blue and 
black, finished with varnish senza olio poi re- 
tocc, con giallo " (finished with varnish with- 
out oil, then retouched with yellow). 

This use of the abbreviated Italian still 
indicated his desire for secrecy. The presence 
of Indian red the cold, durable oxide of iron 
is a great gain, and in the Reynolds portrait 
of " Two Gentlemen," in the National Gal- 
lery at London, the Indian red is " visible 
126 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

everywhere," as Veronese would have said; 
and, as in some of Paul Veronese's paintings, 
just a trifle too noticeable. This is said, of 
course, with portraits by Van Dyck, Rubens, 
Velasquez, and Titian in mind, and I suspect 
that the Indian red has become stronger than 
as first painted by Reynolds. Its presence in 
the " dead color " is visible in some of Paul 
Veronese's work, not unpleasantly, but still 
an unintended flush, perhaps. 

Titian said, be it recalled, " He who would 
be a painter needs to know but three colors, 
white, black, and red, and to have them well 
in hand (' haverli in man ')." In none of the 
entries in his diary, except in the very early 
ones up to about 1755, did Reynolds in any 
way suggest that he used a yellow again in 
the first paintings or " dead color," and we 
are practically certain that the ' ' Venetian Se- 
cret ' ' method of preparing a bed of dead col- 
oring " to build on," of black and white, brok- 
en with red more or less, has been practiced 
by him for over thirty years! It is doubt- 
127 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

fill if Titian ever voluntarily parted with 
any of his studio secrets, yet Paul Veronese 
seems to have succeeded in getting possession 
of the dead-coloring principle, and another se- 
cret of the medium, or vehicle, of still greater 
value. Reynolds seems almost to have taken 
his secret to the grave with him, as far as his 
immediate contemporaries and successors are 
concerned Northcote and Beechey excepted. 
Northcote was such a feeble reflection of his 
master that he need not be considered here. 
Beechey 's work, however, shows the influence 
of Reynolds 's dead-color method attractively. 
Not long before Reynolds died, J. M. W. 
Turner, the great English landscape painter, 
while still a pupil of the Royal Academy 
of London, had access to Reynolds 's 
house, and painted from the great artist's 
pictures, undoubtedly saw unfinished work 
occasionally, and being, as we know, a close 
observer and a logical reasoner, he in time 
studied out a ' ' Venetian Method ' ' of his own 
that was perfectly adapted to landscape. He 
128 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

of course left out the red in the first bed of 
color, making use of white, blue, and blue 
black, three colors. The many Venetian sunset 
pictures show this plainly, and most strik- 
ingly is this indicated in the picture " Grand 
Canal," in the New York Metropolitan Mu- 
seum. The luminosity of this picture, with its 
high key of color, can be obtained in no other 
way. One can only speculate as to what Tur- 
ner might have accomplished had he had a tal- 
ent for drawing and painting the figure, as, 
although he made an attempt at figure paint- 
ing, he soon gave it up as not his forte. 

Among the successors of Reynolds, one who 
in some way or other obtained a knowledge 
of his technical principles and methods, 
.and who practiced them with consid- 
erable technical success most of his life, was 
William Etty, R.A. It took him many years to 
learn them, but when he had them well in hand 
he turned out some fine color harmonies. We 
know Etty traveled abroad and studied the 
Masters in Italy, yet probably the principles 
129 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

of the " Venetian Secret " were well under- 
stood by him before he left England. His 
principles of " dead color " and after-methods 
were nearly as good as any, and were, as de- 
scribed in his own words, as follows : ' ' Reso- 
lution. First night, correctly draw and out- 
line the figure only. Second night, carefully 
paint in the figure with black and white and 
Indian red, for instance. The next, having 
secured with copal, glaze, and then scumble in 
the bloom. Glaze into the shadows and touch 
on the lights carefully, and it is done. ' ' Etty 
probably never heard of the Veronese-Boschini 
description of Paul Veronese's methods and 
manner, and yet how very much alike they are ! 
In explanation of the description of his 
method, it must be noted that he painted many 
of his nudes by gaslight in the evening life 
classes of the Royal Academy, even after he 
became an R.A. But, alas for posterity! he 
did not give his work the final technical treat- 
ment that was necessary to make it durable, 
and his medium in the final stages produced in 
130 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

time discoloration, which in turn makes the 
owners of such pictures, be they private par- 
ties or public museums, lay their precious 
work in the hands of unwise but very confi- 
dent restorers, who proceed, like some surgeons 
in medicine, to cut away instead of curing; 
in short, to remove all above the dead col- 
oring ! The ignorance of the restorer is only 
equaled by that of some owners. I have seen a 
portrait by Rubens, a portrait by Van Dyck, 
and at least two landscapes by Turner thus 
excoriated in public museums, where one 
would expect a scientific treatment and real 
conservation. If the appearance of the 
" skinned " picture is not agreeable to their 
sense of harmony, or is liable to cause com- 
ment, they give it a new epidermis, and gen- 
erally it consists of a golden-brown varnish, 
the very worst thing. And then the public 
comes in and innocently wonders why " the 
old pictures are invariably so dark." 

Before leaving this subject of " dead 
color," or color bed, I would warn those who 
131 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

have never tried it before, not to fall into 
extremes. It is very fascinating, and should 
always be kept ' ' soft and broad, ' ' as Reynolds 
says. The guiding principle should be that 
the silver grays should be in the first paint- 
ing, whether done in red, white, and black, or 
red, white, black, and yellow, or any other 
way and there are many other ways. Each 
artist's genius, individuality, refinement, eye 
for color, etc., should have perfect freedom. 
The knowledge and use of this method is not 
going to make of an artist a Reynolds, Van 
Dyck, Rubens, Veronese, Velasquez, or Titian 
in short, a Master unless there is a master- 
ly ability to think, the vitality and energy to 
do; but every artist should bear in mind that 
there is no wizardry about it all. Titian was 
addressed as the ' ' King of Artists, ' ' and was 
supposed to have rendered the utmost possible ; 
yet immediately, as it were, Paul Veronese 
gave the world new great things; Velasquez 
gave us his wonders; Rubens, in face of all 
the glories of Titian and Veronese, gave us a 
132 



THE METHOD INVISIBLE 

whole line of great, new, beautiful work ; Van 
Dyck's portraits can hold their own silvery 
glory beside Titian, Veronese, and Velasquez, 
and, finally, Reynolds gives us still newer sen- 
sations of beauty. As there is an endless 
variety to the expressions and forms art may 
take, this all proves that we will have still 
other able men, who will take their places 
in the front rank of the world's great artists. 
But the combination of chances to produce 
another man to stand as Titian's equal, with 
his busy long life of ninety-nine years, are 
very slender. 



133 



CHAPTER X 

THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE 

IN looking over some technical memorandum 
books, I came across a note in one nearly 
twenty years old, which says, " On authority 
of Professor G Makart is said to have com- 
menced his work with oil mixed with the yolk 
of an egg." It was only a few days before 
reading this that I had seen his large picture 
" Diana's Hunting Party." I could not help 
noticing at that time that it was cracking in 
parts and turning yellow; this memorandum 
then immediately impressed itself on my mind. 
The picture cannot be more than forty years 
old, and, so to speak, in its earliest infancy. 
As far as the cracks are concerned, they may 
or may not have been caused by the artist's 
medium, for I have discovered that you can 
134 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE 

make almost any picture crack. It is well 
known that the white or body tones of a pic- 
ture are as a rule the last to succumb to the in- 
fluence that causes the cracking. I have found 
by experiments on especially prepared tests 
that the cracks can be artificially produced on 
heavy body white that has been thoroughly 
dried ! So the cracks in Makart's picture may 
or may not be caused by the " yolk of an 
egg ' ' mixed with the oil. I cite this case out 
of very many where some ingredient or in- 
gredients are mixed with the oil for some fan- 
cied benefit. Makart may have used the egg 
yolk, because there is a tradition that some of 
the old frescoes had egg yolk mixed with the 
colors ; but these colors also had as the princi- 
pal medium a watery glue or size, and not an 
oil. There can be no possible benefit from the 
use in this way of the yolk of an egg with oil, 
without a far greater amount of injury. The 
yolk of egg is an animal substance, and the 
oil a vegetable; the oil can dry, the egg can 
only decay in such a situation ; indeed, I need 
10 135 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

not emphasize the fact, too, that egg is subject 
to very rapid decay. So where is the logic, 
or what is the use? As a coloring matter? 
Surely not. As a deadener of the surface, per- 
haps; but we have better, more homogeneous 
things for that purpose in spike oil, wax, 
spirits of turpentine, or benzin. The egg, I 
think, is more useful taken internally, and 
should be kept out of the studio. 

Before going farther afield in our search, 
I would note here the cause of the vanishing 
glory of the pictures of another of the recent 
modern celebrities, the Hungarian painter 
Michael Munkacsy. In Philip Gilbert Hamer- 
ton's " Graphic Arts," the author says : " The 
famous Hungarian painter, Michael Mun- 
kacsy, has been good enough to explain to me, 
in his own studio, all the elements of his 
method. He begins by a rich brown mono- 
chrome, with plenty of varnish on the drawing. 
This monochrome is in itself a fine, well-nour- 
ished, picturesque sketch, and before it is dry 
he works into it a second sketch in color; not 
136 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE 

at all in what we call dead color, such as 
Titian used, that is, with little chromatic in- 
tensity, but a play of the most various and 
brilliant color, from a palette chromatically 
complete, such as a colorist would do for him- 
self before nature, if he had not time to finish. 
One of Munkacsy 's pictures at this early stage 
is a fine medley of hues, through which you 
may trace the intentions of the artist. In sub- 
sequent paintings he develops form through 
this, and brings the color better together by 
uniting it. He never clings to lines, but con- 
siders nature as a quantity of patches of light 
and dark, and of different hues. This is quite 
essentially a painter's conception." This is a 
good description of the average modern artist's 
technical proceeding, " He begins by a rich 
brown monochrome." The most unsophisti- 
cated reader must know by this time what 
happens from such a beginning ; it is absolute 
poison, in time, to any light, clear carnation 
tint placed over it. " This monochrome 
is ... a ... well-nourished . . . sketch, 
137 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

and before it is dry he works into it a sec- 
ond sketch in color, . . . not at all ... dead 
color such as Titian used, with little chromatic 
intensity, but a play of various and brilliant 
color." The rich brown was well nourished, 
that is, thick and strong, and had no chance 
to dry before another color sketch was added, 
necessarily exaggerated, for that is the only 
way to brilliance on thick browns; and later 
on he was forced to subdue the exaggerations, 
for he " develops form " " and brings the 
color better together by uniting it." Here 
we have the origin of the pitchy blackness that 
is enveloping Munkacsy's pictures, and the 
result is hardly to be wondered at. In fact, 
had it been otherwise, it would be a wonder. 
The " Milton and His Daughters " at this 
early day is heavy and funereal in its black- 
ness, and visibly getting more so. Undried 
varnish and oil, with " rich brown mono- 
chrome ' ' in the first paintings ! It is a pity 
that so much of the world's great work should 
become lost because of a lack of a few lucid 
138 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE 

technical elements, and sad to think that pos- 
sibly Makart as well as Munkacsy may have 
realized the existence of this canker in his 
monumental work, and this may have helped 
to draw the veil of insanity over the genius of 
both before they died. In looking over many 
descriptions of the manner and methods of 
modern artists it is a very striking fact that no 
two work exactly alike of course, merely the 
methods and material being considered. This 
is another proof of how each one drifts into his 
own methods and materials, and that there are 
no sound traditions. They all seem to go at 
the production of paintings with a naivete that 
is remarkable, each seeking the easiest and 
quickest method possible to attain the results 
in view. The remark of a chemist that the 
" artists were phenomenally ignorant of their 
own materials, but did not lack confidence," 
would be humorous were it not the sad truth. 
When they do begin to question and select 
ways and means, as some French, English, and 
German painters are doing, there becomes a 
139 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

wide divergence of opinion and of the manner 
of procedure, and above all in material. The 
search when once begun by earnest men be- 
comes serious. Should they lay down their 
work and devote all their time and thought to 
it, only now and then doing something for the 
public, they soon find that it is necessary to 
give up one or the other. My own interest in 
the search had become such a habit, and had so 
much pleasure in it, that when my experiments 
finally came to an end, I had been used to 
the hunt for so many years, I really felt as 
though I had suffered a loss ! 

I have before quoted Vibert's panacea for 
avoiding the yellowing blackness in the 
medium, and will add a few more words here 
as to why, in my judgment, the " petroleum 
and normal resin " or varnish is not logical, 
and only adds that which it is intended to 
prevent. The specific gravity of resin is less 
than that of oil ; naturally, the resin will form 
at the top in any atmosphere warm enough to 
dry it ; the resin then drying first, with the oil 
140 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OE VEHICLE 

underneath, and the oil only partially drying, 
the painting becomes yellow, brown and black- 
ens. Here are three substances with uneven 
drying powers and no affinity. It follows that 
there is no normal drying of the painting. It 
cannot be controverted that a painting made 
of the fewest materials, as far as medium or 
binder is concerned, and especially if made of 
one medium alone, is the surest to have har- 
monious drying, union, transparency, and 
durability. 

The uncertainty that Reynolds exhibits in 
his diaries in reference to a transparent and 
durable medium extended throughout his life. 
Where he used oil in the dead coloring, or 
throughout the picture, it has " stood well," 
as in his early work, such as was done before 
1760 ; but this does not mean that it is there- 
fore his best work. It undoubtedly lacks the 
transparency, " that deep-toned brightness " 
as he called it, he so earnestly sought for. 
When he used oil in the ' ' dead coloring, ' ' and 
in his subsequent painting a minimum of good 
141 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

varnish and wax (especially the latter) with 
his color in oil, his paintings have also ' ' stood 
well "; while when the varnish and wax be- 
come a factor in quantity there follows deteri- 
oration. When the varnish glaze or semiglaze 
was covered, even in part, by another vehicle 
there ensued discoloration unless there was 
perfect and fundamental drying. When there 
was a simplicity of medium throughout, there 
was more durability and a minimum of dis- 
coloration. 

For very nearly fourteen years Reynolds 
used Venice turpentine and wax more or 
less, and the more Venice turpentine dries, the 
more it loses its transparency, unless its trans- 
parency is renewed artificially, a device well 
known to some restorers. In our search after a 
transparent, comfortable, easily handled, and 
durable medium we find no inspiration here; 
we must seek elsewhere. In studying the writ- 
ings of others on this subject, I find the search 
has been conducted with a great deal of energy 
and patience, and a vast collection of formu- 
142 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OE VEHICLE 

las for mixtures, vehicles, oils, and varnishes 
made, but no authoritative, logical selection 
and classification. The works on these sub- 
jects place a vast number of ideas and sug- 
gestions, good, bad, and indifferent (with the 
grain of good hidden and disguised), at your 
disposal and there you are. If you have had 
experience of any kind, you may be able to 
get some assistance ; otherwise, you will surely 
get into bad practice. To wade through, con- 
sider, and test the best and most likely methods 
and mediums in this huge mass of chaff was a 
tremendous task, and was a very perplexing, 
trying, and thankless work; but it had an 
end, fortunately, or this little book would not 
have been written. The labor was like learn- 
ing languages the more you knew, the easier 
it became to acquire a new tongue. From the 
many very old, rambling, and obscure Italian 
writings on this subject, it was impossible to 
glean a suggestion or an authoritative record 
that made any sense whatever that was not 
already in a way suggested or contained in 
143 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

that very complete work of the Frenchman 
J. F. L. Merimee's " Art of Painting in Oil." 
The same ground has also been very well cov- 
ered by Sir Charles L. Eastlake's " Materials 
for a History of Oil Painting." And many 
original technical art finds were contained in 
Mrs. Merrifield 's ' ' Original Treatise on Paint- 
ing." 

These compilations and many others were 
studied to find the Masters' medium, for of all 
the important things about a painting, the 
medium or vehicle is the most important. It 
makes it, in the first place, easy or difficult to 
paint, and so helps to make or mar the ab- 
stract or artistic aspect. It is the transparent 
substance through which the color particles are 
visible to the eye. It is the modest invisible 
power that holds the particles of color stead- 
ily in place in dry weather, in wet, in cold 
or warm, in strong light or in darkness, 
while resting stationary or moved about. 
It is the substance that will hold the color 
particles in place under favorable conditions 
144 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE 

for a thousand years; yes, three thousand 
years! But instead of new light and pre- 
cise knowledge from these compilations, the 
subject became more dark and befogged, so 
there was nothing to do but test, test and again 
test, until by elimination I once more came 
to the starting point of the oil as the medium. 
But the oil in a more or less pure state dark- 
ened and discolored the painting ! In all the 
years that I had been possessed with the idea of 
discovering the Old Masters' technic, I never 
once thought of failure, only occasionally feel- 
ing very much disturbed and depressed be- 
cause no better progress was made, and at 
the lapse of time ; and now, when I was once 
more thrown back logically on the use of the 
ill-famed oil, and with which I had already 
made almost countless experiments, I was very 
much disheartened, and failure seemed im- 
minent. 

Thus, for a long time I was thoroughly 
" stuck " and at a standstill. But by a happy 
chance, or because I thought so constantly 
145 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

about it no matter with what I was occupied, 
it suddenly began to dawn on me that there 
must be some after-process that took from the 
oil its power to injure by loss of transparency 
and darkening after being incorporated into a 
painting ! Heat was applied with no very sat- 
isfactory results, as, excepting to facilitate 
the drying, it did not seem to have any appre- 
ciable value in preventing the after-discolora- 
tion. Then I tried sunlight, with its steady 
heat, and with that a distinct improvement 
set in, and for some time I tested the effect 
of direct sunlight in many ways and on many 
substances. I soon proved to my own satis- 
faction that if the first painting or dead color 
was thickly used, a thorough or veritable burn- 
ing out was absolutely necessary ; not at all a 
drying such as the average artist considers 
sufficient, but one such as would effectually re- 
duce the quantity of oil. I might call it a 
burning out and a bleaching to a fixed solid 
state. As long as there is any soft or fluid 
oil left underneath the surface it is liable to 
146 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE 

darken, and this cumbersome drudgery is nec- 
essary from the beginning of the oil ground 
throughout the various stages of the painting 
to the final varnish. Many an artist has been 
aware of the necessity of the drying in the 
ordinary sense of each layer of paint, but they 
did not realize the very great importance and 
necessity of bringing about the fixed bleached 
state, i. e., the necessity of quickly changing 
the character of the oil under the outer film. 
This soft, subfilm oil is the chief factor of the 
discolor -at ions. The film itself is more or less 
porous, and when the oil is mixed with varnish 
the minute openings are in a measure closed, 
hindering the evaporation of the subsurface 
oil, interfering with the light and air contact 
with the inner surface, and preventing that so 
essential circulation of the heated dry air in 
and out of the pores of the oil. The purer th'e 
oil, the finer the result. 

The studio is no place to perform this proc- 
ess of burning out, because it has no sunlight. 
Even during the very hot summer months the 
147 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

painting could not burn out in the studio. 
Direct strong sunlight is absolutely necessary. 
This is the only way to attain the transparency 
and permanence of the Masters. High-keyed, 
transparent, durable color is not otherwise at- 
tainable, and fraudulent colors are quickly ex- 
posed. The sunlight at one blow destroys the 
excess of oil that causes the yellowing, brown- 
ing, and blackening, and also exposes or de- 
stroys the dishonest, the unstable, and the 
weak color. Good honest colors become more 
brilliant and beautiful. The false madder 
quickly disappears, the poorly made vermilion 
blackens. The fierce white light of the sun 
is a potent influence for good, and a destroyer 
of the bad in art as in other things. Climate 
and weather will have an influence in the cre- 
ation of good paintings. ' ' Sunny Italy ' ' has 
produced many beautiful pictures, but, I will 
hasten to add, so has " foggy London." Tho 
possibility of eliminating the oil afterwards 
enables an artist to use it freely in the colors 
and on the palette, no other technic being as 
148 



THE TRUE MEDIUM OR VEHICLE 

easy as the pure-oil technic. In one experi- 
ment I had successively eliminated the oil 
in various degrees until I had burned it all 
out in one part and the paint had again be- 
come a powder! But note well, that is not 
what you are to try to do in your paintings. 
If you go to such an extreme you will waste 
much energy and patience, for it takes many 
days' sunshine in spring and summer months, 
from early morning until sundown, and pro- 
tection from dust, to bring about this result. 

Some prominent manufacturers of artists' 
colors have stated: " We believe, however, it 
is a matter of opinion whether there are at 
present any investigations before the public 
which, with regard to their direct bearing on 
ordinary painting, and exclusive of scientific 
value in the abstract, can be considered satis- 
factory ' ' ; and that, ' ' no person who values a 
painting ever dreams of exposing it to the di- 
rect blaze of sunlight "; and further that, 
" no experimenter should therefore carry out 
his investigations under conditions other than 
149 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

those which obtain in the ordinary life history 
of a properly kept picture. ' ' While I believe 
that the manufacturers in question are honest 
in their opinions, and that there is much con- 
fusion and doubt in the whole matter where 
Royal Academicians take opposing sides and 
hold strong convictions, I shall be able, I be- 
lieve, to disprove their statement beyond a 
shadow of a doubt, and on absolutely unim- 
peachable testimony and authority, and thus 
settle this matter once for all. Success seemed 
to attend nearly all my experiments, and I 
felt sure I had the Masters' medium, but I 
longed for an authoritative corroboration. 
But how to get it was the question. The Mas- 
ters were all dead; in many cases even their 
burial places were forgotten. Well, then, per- 
haps in some one letter of all these men there 
must be some chance mention of this, even if 
they as a class were reticent on technical mat- 
ters. 



150 



CHAPTER XI 

THE EVIDENCE 

So I again set sail on the sea of discovery. 
It had long before taken firm hold in my mind 
that I might get some hint or fact from some 
autograph letter of one of the Masters. This, 
if found, would be valuable from every con- 
ceivable point of view. It would be authori- 
tative; and with the Masters' work before us, 
it would be convincing. With this thought, 
then, constantly in mind I began my search in 
this new channel. Among many other works 
and short notices consulted were " Carpen- 
ter's Pictorial Notices," consisting of a 
memoir of Sir A. Van Dyck. The largest col- 
lection of artists' letters I could discover, 
that of Dr. Ernst Guhl's " Kilnstler Brief e " 
("Artists' Letters"), edition 1880, was a 
11 151 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

veritable storehouse of art history and art 
research. Dr. Guhl was teacher of art history 
at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, and 
died in the year 1862. There have been since 
his death revisions and additions to his work 
that have enlarged it greatly, but still it is 
not now up to date in all the latest discov- 
eries of artists' letters, and particularly of 
Rubens 's letters made by the French and 
others. 

It is a pity that all such discoveries should 
not be collected in one complete work. The 
first letter we have of importance for our pur- 
pose was written by Titian when he was ninety- 
one years of age. It was dated Venice, 31st 
July, 1568, and was addresed to the Deputies 
of Brescia. The paintings in question were 
very large, with life-size figures, and intended 
for the town hall of Brescia. In the letter 
occurs this sentence: " But the paintings are 
somewhat troublesome to handle, if one wishes 
to apply varnish on certain places, which, 
without placing it in the sun cannot dry." We 
152 



THE EVIDENCE 

have it here authoritatively stated by the 
greatest of artists that it does a picture some 
service to place it in the sunlight ; and varnish, 
which our modern artists add to their medium 
to make it dry, is here shown to be itself in 
need of being placed in the sun to dry. A 
modern artist does not dream of the need of 
assisting the retouching varnish, or any other 
varnish, to dry in such a troublesome man- 
ner ; for it must indeed have been ' ' somewhat 
troublesome ' ' to take such large paintings out 
of doors into the sunlight so often. Titian re- 
ceived his order and first payment in August, 
1565, and the delivery, though not the last 
payment, took place in October, 1568, over 
three years later. Did Titian, who was gen- 
erally so secretive in technical matters, state 
the facts in his letter? "Was it only a conven- 
tional excuse to appease the clamor of the 
Brescians for the delivery of the paintings 
which he was taking such a long time to fin- 
ish? I believe he did state the facts. He 
may not have used the varnish as a retouching 
153 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

varnish, because he says he applied it in 
' ' places ' ' ; but he may have used it with color 
added as a thin veil, as Reynolds was so fond 
of doing. 

Be that as it may, he clearly says it was a 
varnish, and without the sun it could not dry. 
So much is certain! Now, if a man of his 
genius decides the sun is necessary for varnish, 
how much more necessary must it be for the 
oil! "We know that Titian was in Rome in 
1545, and while there painted Pope Paul the 
III Farnese. And we have a letter of a con- 
temporary of Titian's, one Giorgio Vasari, ad- 
dressed to Benedetto Varchi, and dated Flor- 
ence, 12th February, 1547, in which occurs 
the following paragraph : ' ' As happened, for 
instance, with the portrait of Pope Paul III, 
which was placed on a balcony in the sun 
to dry, and many persons in passing, who 
saw it, thought it was the Pope himself, and 
made their obeisance." This, added to Ti- 
tian's letter, ought to convince anyone that 
he was particular in having his pictures placed 
154 



THE EVIDENCE 

in sunlight to dry. My own opinion is that it 
was more on account of the oil than any var- 
nish that this was done. When we consider 
that only one painting out of a thousand comes 
out of the cold, north-light studios to get even 
fairly " dried," and those only by chance in 
summer, it is not to be wondered at their sink- 
ing into the brown and black. An old gentle- 
man who knew nothing about art whatever, 
once surprised me by asking, " Why are old 
paintings always so dark 1 ' ' The truth of the 
statement struck me so forcibly I could hardly 
formulate a reply. 

I am well aware that the letters I have just 
quoted may not convince the artists and others 
that my theories are sufficiently corroborated, 
for few if any modern painters paint accord- 
ing to such principles. They naturally would 
not like to admit that they have been laboring 
in vain, that their lasting fame is as though it 
was written on the sands of the seashore at 
low tide. I do not wish by this little book 
to do anything but assist those who are open 
155 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

to reason and can lay aside prejudice. I am 
not giving advice; I am only to the best of 
my knowledge stating valuable facts, that I 
firmly believe will have a far-reaching influ- 
ence on the art of painting in the future. The 
writer is fully aware that advice is very dis- 
tasteful to those who need it most. In art we 
need vanity, and it hurts our vanity to admit 
we are wrong. If the letters I have quoted 
have failed to convince the skeptics, then let 
them note the following letter of Rubens, 
addressed to Justus Sustermans, his former 
countryman, then residing in Florence, Italy, 
and dated Antwerp, 12th March, 1638. Ru- 
bens was then sixty-one years of age, just two 
years before his death. I will here quote the 
whole of the postscript : " N. S. I am afraid, 
that if that newly painted picture remains 
rolled and packed up such a long time, that 
the colors may have deteriorated and particu- 
larly the carnations and the white lead have 
darkened a little. As however your highness 
is yourself so great in our art, you will easily 
156 



THE EVIDENCE 

remedy that by exposing the picture to the 
sun in certain inclosed places; and should it 
be necessary, your highness could, with my 
consent, lay hand thereon, and there, where ac- 
cident or my neglect makes it necessary, re- 
touch it. "With this I again, ' ' etc. The picture 
was rolled and must have been what the mod- 
ern artists consider dry, and therefore to be 
henceforth, according to their habits, severely 
neglected. But friends, this placing at that 
time in the sunlight has nothing to do with so- 
called drying; it is the magic chemical action 
of the sunlight that the Masters made use of 
to preserve and increase their color, its trans- 
parency, and, what hardly needs repeating 
here, its durability. Note the admission of the 
fact that Rubens had, and the assumption that 
Sustermans had, special sun-exposed but in- 
closed spaces for this very purpose. If a 
modern artist were shown such an inclosed 
space of Rubens 's, and was told Rubens placed 
his pictures therein to " dry," he would have 
turned away and given the matter no further 
157 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

thought ; or if he did think, he perhaps would 
have said, that does not tell me how and with 
what Rubens painted. Without the assistance 
of the direct sunlight there is no other way or 
means to obtain the results of the Masters. 
The fierce white light and heat of the sun 
is the magician. I have experimented with 
artificial heat alone many times, because 
the sun does not always shine when we need 
it, but except to give an artist the oppor- 
tunity to proceed with his work at an 
appointed time, it does not serve the purpose 
at all. 

For those who still may not be convinced, 
I will quote a part of another letter of Rubens 
(the italics being mine), addressed to the 
French savant Nicolas Claude Fabri de 
Pieresc, and dated London, 9th August, 1629, 
Rubens being then in his fifty-second year. 
The extract is : "If I knew that my portrait 
was still in Antwerp, I would have it detained 
there, to have the box opened, to see if it has 
not been injured, or become darkened, as hap- 
158 



THE EVIDENCE 

pens often to fresh colors, if they are, as is here 
the case, so long locked in a box, and not in 
contact with the air. It may be then that my 
portrait does not now look as it did originally. 
Should it really reach you in such a bad condi- 
tion, the best remedy for that would be to put 
it often in the sun; by this means the excess of 
oil, which causes such changes, is destroyed; 
and if from time to time it should again get 
dark, setting it in the sun's rays must be re- 
newed. This is the only remedy against this 
heart disease." 

Are there any skeptics left after this? 
This letter teaches us, coming from Rubens, of 
all men the one from whom we would have it 
most, that he used oil ; and, judged by the ex- 
treme solicitude displayed by him to apply 
the ' ' only remedy ' ' for ' ' this heart disease, ' ' 
the darkening, he must have used oil freely. 
The easy flow and freedom of the brush shows 
that he must have used plenty of it (but never 
too much), and that the surface over which 
the brush moved was perfectly dry and hard. 
159 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

His paintings have the appearance of having 
been done at one coup ; at one cast, like bronze. 
There is a unity throughout, a lightness, a 
beauty, as Reynolds said, " like a bunch of 
flowers," that was only brought about by the 
great magician the sun. We know from the 
writings of Rubens that he was very particu- 
lar to keep dust from his unfinished paintings, 
and that on this account he did not like windy 
days. Like Titian he often delayed sending 
away paintings in order to sun them. The 
writer cannot resist the temptation to quote 
two more little extracts from two Rubens let- 
ters written on the same day, dated Ant- 
werp, 26th May, 1618, and addressed to Sir 
Dudley Carleton. The first is as follows: 
" We have had to-day so fine a sun that (a 
few excepted) the whole of your pictures are 
so dry that they could be packed to-morrow. 
The same may be hoped of the others in the 
course of three days, according to the appear- 
ance of the good season." The second letter 
contained this interesting paragraph: " Still 
160 



THE EVIDENCE 

with the aid of the sun, if it shines serene and 
without wind (which, stirring up the dust, 
is injurious to newly painted pictures) will be 
in a fit state to be rolled up in five or six days 
of fine weather." 



161 



CHAPTER XII 

SUMMARY 

IT seems hardly necessary for me to produce 
any further evidence in support of my con- 
tention in regard to the medium and methods 
of the Masters. We have our evidence fortu- 
nately from the two greatest technical giants, 
Titian and Rubens. At last we have light 
upon a " mystery " that has long troubled 
generations of artists. Many an otherwise 
brilliant genius has struck this hidden reef and 
gone down. The secret of the medium lay hid- 
den behind that innocent act the " drying," 
and in an ordinary sense that has hardly any 
significance, for even the dullest painter may 
want to dry a picture ; but by making diligent 
and thorough use of the strongest sunlight 
during the progress of the work, and partieu- 
162 



SUMMARY 

larly immediately afterwards, a painting be- 
gins to attain that fine, enamel-like surface 
of the Masters, that " life-like " appearance, 
so unlike an ordinary oil painting ; that won- 
derful appearance, that has deceived and baf- 
fled generations of capable painters; that ap- 
pearance of transparency and lightness, yet 
with its depth of color and solidity of body 
in short, that appearance that has made men 
like Reynolds hold for a lifetime to the false 
theory that it could only be accomplished by 
means of a varnish medium. How many 
artists there are who solemnly extract every 
drop of oil possible from the tube colors, and 
substitute some rubbish of their own or some- 
body else's invention. Some of the greatest 
names in modern art will come under this 
head. 

The various theories and inventions in- 
tended to accomplish the Masters' technical 
results would by themselves fill volumes. And 
yet there are some isolated cases of artists in 
various countries who have solved this problem 
163 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

in whole or in part, and who in consequence 
have generally attained the reputation of col- 
orists ! It is quite certain that those who have 
not studied, worked, and solved the problems 
as the Masters did, have not retained any repu- 
tation as colorists. I might cite the meth- 
ods, vehicle and palette, employed by many 
painters in the last one hundred years, and 
who at one time had reputations as colorists, 
yet whose work to-day has an uninteresting, 
dark, yellowish-brown appearance. As I have 
said elsewhere, no two have worked alike, yet 
the results are alike in brown, dark pictures. 
Now the Masters in the principle of their work, 
and almost in the palette, were alike, yet the 
beautiful results varied greatly. Each man's 
individual taste for color was stamped on his 
work ineffaceably. " Sunny Italy " seems by 
nature to have been the birthplace of what 
Reynolds called the " grand style " of paint- 
ing ; but if climate and environment had any- 
thing to do with the production of fine paint- 
ings, why did it appear to cease soon after the 
164 



SUMMARY 

deaths of Paul Veronese and Tintoretto ? The 
decline of the art of painting is so pronounced, 
that were it not for a few Frenchmen, and the 
great Flemish and Dutch painters, there would 
be a complete dark break between the Great 
Masters and the present times. Almost in the 
same year of Titian's death, 1576, Rubens was 
born, 1577. He and Van Dyck carried the 
great work onward far north of " sunny 
Italy," in Antwerp and foggy London. Thus 
we see that the controlling factor in the pro- 
duction of masterpieces is not climate, or 
indeed any other feature of natural environ- 
ment, but that fortuitous and most truly glo- 
rious incarnation in one man of the magic 
trinity Knowledge, Ability, and Vitality. 
The Master, all hail to him ! 

Before closing this story of a search for 
the secrets of the Masters, it will be proper 
to take up the subject of colors. Speak- 
ing generally, I found both the colors 
and the dealers much maligned, for the treat- 
ment of the colors is not quite understood. I 
165 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

have found the tube colors sold by the repu- 
table and old-established houses to have a high 
average of quality, although I have frequently 
had to reject a tube as being much too old, and 
occasionally a color that was not the shade de- 
sired, or appeared soiled by foreign matters, 
especially the blacks and the darker colors, 
such as bone brown, the madders, and raw 
sienna. The whites and ochres were apt to be 
discolored. With the light colors, the soiled 
state was plainly apparent on inspection be- 
fore use. The dirt and dust particles, espe- 
cially lint, in the dark colors, become only vis- 
ible in the process of handling and ' ' drying. ' ' 
The manner of drying also indicates 
whether any other substance besides oil was 
mixed with the color. Then again the fact 
that very few tube colors have Unseed oil only 
as the oily constituent must be considered, 
some having poppy oil, and most having prob- 
ably nut oil. Now this is one serious disadvan- 
tage of the tube colors, without considering 
that there may be wax or some other substance 
166 



SUMMARY 

added. The oil in some of the tubes may be 
rancid and stale, in others fresh, and with 
probably three kinds of oil the results cannot 
be as good as the Masters' colors and fresh lin- 
seed oil would give. Nevertheless, in very 
skillful hands I have seen results closely ap- 
proximating those of the Masters. In a great 
many cases, on the other hand, I have seen 
very poor work done by skillful men, where I 
had good reason to think the results were due 
to the inferior material. This is the dark side 
of the otherwise convenient modern system of 
having large manufacturers prepare colors for 
the many artists, as against the old system of 
having each artist prepare his own. In the 
latter case, if he had no helper at hand, he 
would find it a very great addition to his hard 
work. But then he could mix his colors to a 
consistency to suit his habit of working, make 
sure his color is pure, his oil pure and fresh, 
and last and most important, that no foreign 
substance is present to retard its natural 
drying. 

12 167 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

From the present conditions it hardly looks 
as though the apprentice system of the Old 
Masters or the artists preparing their colors 
in their own studios will ever be restored, so 
it behooves us to try to improve the system we 
have. The only essentials are purity and gen- 
uineness of color and purity and freshness of 
the oil. It seems to me that possibly it would 
in the end pay the manufacturers to have 
strict labels as to kind of color, oil, and date 
of placing on the market; above all whether 
the color is light proof; then charge a little 
more for the extra trouble and expense for 
withdrawal of old colors from the market. 
What I shall say here about colors is only as 
as artist is concerned with them. Every artist 
who buys a color in the market must make a 
test of every tube or take the maker's word 
as to its genuineness. Of course this does not 
refer to the ochres, for they are so cheap and 
plentiful there is no motive for fraud ; but in 
regard to nearly all others, and particularly 
the expensive colors, the artist must do one or 
168 



SUMMARY 

the other. And here I wish most emphatically 
to caution the artist to use madders or other 
strong reds only when they are absolutely 
light proof. I had occasion to paint with 
white, black, and madder without any other 
color, and in a year the madder had vanished 
it had been bought of one of the best houses ; 
and this reminds me of some portraits by 
Gainsborough, the colors of which, particu- 
larly the red, had faded. At about the same 
time they were painted, Reynolds also painted 
some portraits that subsequently faded, and 
when complaint of this was made to him, he 
made his famous little joke of " coming off 
with flying colors. ' ' Very likely they bought 
their colors of the same colorman. 

Many strange causes are given for changes 
in colors on paintings, and often when the 
wiseacres do not know the cause, they make 
one up. Among those doing double duty are 
gases; somewhat like the cause of fire when 
the cause is unknown, it can always be as- 
signed to spontaneous combustion. It seems 
169 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

very strange, too, that the ' ' gases ' ' affect cer- 
tain men's work, and others not at all. I be- 
lieve the ochres are the only ones of all the 
colors that have maintained a good reputation 
with us all. Is it because they are not as hand- 
some as their sisters ? In my talks with artist 
painters I have heard nearly every color, ex- 
cepting a few ochres, in turn condemned, be- 
ginning with white, all down the list. In my 
experience and tests I have found most colors 
commonly used, and having a bad reputation, 
to be satisfactory if used alone or properly 
treated. This of course does not refer to ani- 
line colors. It would be impossible for me to 
take an ordinary color list of the dealers, and 
go through all, and give an opinion on their 
lasting quality. Each artist, as his taste and 
judgment dictates the use of certain colors, 
should learn to get in the habit of testing them. 
It is easily done, as I will show later on, and 
requires only the will and some attention. 

Beginning with white lead, be it Cremnitz 
white, silver white, flake white, or other good 
170 



white lead, it has been asserted that some 
colors, as for instance vermilion, suffered 
when brought in contact with white lead, or 
rather, that the lead darkened when brought in 
contact with vermilion. Pure vermilion is oc- 
casionally characterized by fluctuation, that 
is, under certain conditions of light and tem- 
perature ; it gets darker in a strong light, and 
in a weaker light returns to its former state. 
I have made tests that extended over a period 
of twenty years, and have found that if the 
colors are used in the manner of the Masters, 
the vermilion does not mar or injure the white 
lead, nor the white lead the vermilion. Of 
this I am firmly convinced, even though such 
an eminent painter as Vibert says that it is 
necessary to use zinc white with vermilion in- 
stead of white lead. In his book he declares : 
" Sont bonnes aussi; Le Cinabre, Vermilion 
frangais, Vermilion de Chine, en ayant soin 
de ne jamais les melanger au blanc de plomb 
ou d 'argent, mais au blanc de zinc settlement." 
To drop white lead and use that sickly zinc 
171 



THE SECEET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

white, instead, in painting the flesh, for in- 
stance, is a serious nuisance, though in paint- 
ing red drapery it is not so troublesome. Take 
vermilion from Rubens 's paintings, and you 
take the heart out. It seems to me inconceiv- 
able that he could have bothered with zinc 
white. I shall conclusively prove that he used 
white lead and not zinc white. The whole mat- 
ter in reference to white lead and vermilion 
always rests on the sterling purity of the white 
lead, oil, and vermilion, and the proper treat- 
ment, as indicated in the preceding chapter. 
I am aware that it is a tradition that for- 
bids the mixture of white lead and vermilion, 
and substitutes zinc white in place of the white 
lead. To an artist of an inquiring mind, ver- 
milion and white are very obvious in Rubens 's 
paintings ; but if proof were wanted as to the 
character of the white he employed, we have 
the very best, over his own signature, in a let- 
ter quoted in the preceding chapter to his fel- 
low artist and one-time countryman, Justus 
Sustermans, dated Antwerp, March 12th, 1638. 
172 



SUMMARY 

I will give only a part of the postscript. He 
writes: "I am afraid that if that newly 
painted picture remains packed up such a long 
time, that the colors may have deteriorated 
and particularly that the carnations and the 
white lead have darkened a little." Fortu- 
nately Rubens was one of the greatest of the 
Old Masters, and the question of white lead 
and vermilion versus zinc white and vermilion 
is in my judgment settled, once for all. 

Since flesh is conceded to be one of the most 
difficult things to paint, I have given my atten- 
tion to such colors as I thought might enter 
into it and the immediate environment usually 
portrayed. The Old Masters, as I said else- 
where, had one ochre, of a deep red quality, 
that probably is unknown to-day. But on the 
other hand, we have many good substitutes 
and more and better colors, excepting only 
genuine ultramarine, which on account of its 
expense is practically prohibited. It was ex- 
pensive and scarce in the Old Masters' time, as 
some of their contracts for paintings show. I 
173 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

think we have so many good colors that it is 
really an embarrassment of riches. I am sure 
that many artists are often puzzled to decide 
which colors to leave off the palette. The ab- 
solute certainty that the Old Masters had 
fewer colors should guide us in our use of 
them. They knew how to employ the simplest 
colors with the greatest effect. The nudes in 
most cases were painted with a striking ab- 
sence of strong reds and yellows. One day in 
looking for two colors to make a rich, warm 
veil or " glaze " with varnish, I was very 
much surprised to note the almost exact re- 
semblance a thin mixture of varnish and light 
red was to a mixture of madder and a power- 
ful yellow. Except toward the finishing, the 
Masters' principle of flesh-color effects was to 
avoid the mixing of red and yellow as much as 
possible. Their habit was, for the flesh to use 
only three colors at a time a white, a black, 
and some other color, the latter being con- 
stantly changed according to the progress of 
the flesh painting. One day it would be a 
174 



SUMMARY 

strong red, and when that was dry enough 
to proceed, a warmer red was then laid over, 
and finally the much warmer yellow. This 
procedure insures simplicity of color and dura- 
bility. 

The more modern practice of mixing a red 
and yellow, adding, for the colder tints, black 
and white, or blue and white, then probably 
breaking this mixture with still other colors, 
is more complex on its face, more likely to 
make a bad chemical compound, takes more 
time, and one color kills the purity of the 
other. "What are the probabilities, under such 
conditions, of color durability? Then, too, a 
brilliant yellow or red may have been strength- 
ened with a color lacking permanence. The 
artist is too ready to take the color that is most 
brilliant and reject the sturdy, honest, though 
less pretty color. Take, for instance, yelloAv 
ochre. I have known a manufacturer, in try- 
ing to displace a rival, to place on sale a color 
much richer and stronger than ordinary yel- 
low ochre. The injury to permanence would 
175 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

come from the presumably bad character of 
the adulterant. To return to white lead, there 
is one idea entirely personal with me, and it 
may have occurred to others, that is, that I 
find the white lead often ground too fine. 
There ought to be two kinds, each equally 
white, clean, and pure, but differing in the 
degree of the grinding. One should be consid- 
erably coarser, not in the other extreme, but 
so it will lose the pasty, close consistency, and 
move better with the brush for heavy body 
tones. I have found when large tubes of so- 
called decorative white lead were put out for 
sale, it was not as clean, pure, and white as 
it should be. 



176 



CHAPTER XIII 

DURABLE COLORS 

THE reader is probably well acquainted with 
the principal safe colors, yet for the benefit 
of those who may not know, I will mention a 
few which when made correctly may be relied 
on, and which have an extreme range. 

"White lead, blue black, ivory black, bone 
brown, cobalt, ultramarine, light red, Indian 
red, vermilion, the lovely madders (rose to 
deeper shades), cobalt violet, yellow ochre, 
raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt terre verte, 
raw umber, burnt umber, cadmium (in two or 
more shades as required), terre verte, verte 
de cobalt, the oxide of chromiums, and quite a 
number of others. But this is already a large 
array to have handy for any possible subject, 
and not at all likely to be used for any one 
177 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

painting. The smaller the number of colors 
used, the better. I did not mention the chrome 
yellows and other colors constantly used, espe- 
cially those our friends the landscape painters 
are in the habit of using the strong greens, 
and blues and yellows to make greens. I will 
describe later how each artist can test easily 
and surely each color he is in the habit of 
using; this will protect him and his work, and 
if generally adopted will put dishonest or in- 
competent manufacturers out of business. The 
tube colors spoken of as safe are those only 
of the old reputable manufacturers. 

It might be well to say a word more in 
regard to cobalt. Years ago, in Munich, 
an instructor of mine condemned it. He de- 
clared it turned green, and that it was adul- 
terated with powdered glass ; but I have since 
tested it, and come to the conclusion that the 
oil in the color may have deceived him, and 
when it turned darker yellow the blue natu- 
rally took on a green tint. The tests have 
proved it reliable, and I have regretted not 
178 



DURABLE COLORS 

having had as much use of it as I otherwise 
should. The beauty of a blue, violet, purple, 
or a pearl-gray tone is very quickly destroyed 
by a yellowing medium. Ultramarine, both 
alone and in combination with other colors, 
I have found excellent, except that when com- 
bined with cadmium or chrome yellow there 
seemed to be a doubt, the blue apparently over- 
powering the yellow but that comes under 
the head of green. If its color is satisfactory, 
a reliable yellow to mix with the blue to make 
a green is said to be citron yellow (chromate 
of zinc). Light red is one of our finest and 
most permanent colors, and should be used 
where possible, in place of combining two 
stronger colors that just turn out a tone the 
exact equivalent of light red and likely to be 
less permanent. Indian red, when mixed with 
white, is a fine tone, but care should be taken 
in its use, as its strength seems to increase 
with time. All madder colors, when well made 
of the genuine madder and clear pure oil 
alone, are reliable and permanent. Cobalt 
179 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

violet seems thus far to be durable. It is the 
only color with a tendency to violet I know to 
be stable. The madders of very purple shade 
do not seem to be either genuine or permanent. 
If the artist's need for reds extends beyond 
Indian red, light red, vermilion, madders, and 
cobalt violet, it will be necessary for him to 
make tests, since there is no doubt about these, 
and there is about some or nearly all others, 
and these cover a wide range. Yellow ochre 
is a true, permanent color, and should always 
be ground very fine ; indeed, the finer the bet- 
ter; the same also applying emphatically to 
light red. These two colors if ground coarsely 
lose their true beauty of tone. Raw sienna 
and burnt sienna are good, permanent colors 
and should be very useful occasionally. Burnt 
sienna is very similar to light red, in that they 
are both close to the dividing line between 
red and yellow. The light red seems nearer 
to the neutral line than the burnt sienna, the 
latter having more yellow, and in consequence, 
for painting the carnations, not to be com- 
180 



DURABLE COLORS 

pared to light red. Artists who have painted 
with a restricted palette will understand my 
meaning. "With a restricted palette one at 
least learns the true power of each color. 
Burnt terre verte when it has its true shade 
and not burnt too much, so it resembles burnt 
sienna, is a beautiful tone, and very useful in 
breaking either a red or yellow. When used 
in combination with black and white it gives 
beautiful, high-keyed notes that occur in the 
nude, are quickly mixed and permanent. The 
cadmiums, and even the chromes, I have found 
good if properly treated. I feel, however, that 
they do not stand mixture with blue very well. 
I know the chromes have a very bad reputa- 
tion, but I have tested good cadmium with 
good white lead, and good chrome with good 
white lead, and they have behaved very well. 
The one annoying manifestation of these colors 
occurred when mixed with a blue, especially 
with the Prussian and Antwerp blues, and 
even when united with our good friend ultra- 
marine they have shown a marked tendency 
181 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

to become overpowered by the blues. The 
Prussian and Antwerp blues have a well- 
earned reputation for getting black. Did the 
Masters use asphaltum? I believe they did, 
but not in the modern manner. I believe they 
never mixed asphaltum with oil. It is itself 
a deep rich brown, turpentine varnish. If 
the asphaltum is mixed with oil and used 
freely as an artist's color, the turpentine in 
the asphaltum evaporates, the asphaltum films 
over, and as in other mixtures of oil and var- 
nish the oil remains undried underneath. The 
first good rise of temperature in the summer 
causes the oil to expand, and gravitation starts 
a movement downward. Used with oil, as- 
phaltum absolutely produces blackening and 
deterioration. The unfortunate use of asphal- 
tum may be noted in two pictures of Mun- 
kacsy's, " The Pawnbroker " and the " Last 
Hours of Mozart," now in the New York Met- 
ropolitan Museum. 

A word about color tests. The only logical 
color test for artists is the prolonged contact 
182 



DURABLE COLORS 

of the color with air and sunlight. When a 
color is to be tested it is necessary to have a 

canvas grounded absolutely white, which 
Coiors g k itself above suspicion of any possible 

change, to receive it. Therefore, to test 
color we must first make and test a canvas. A 
good linen should be chosen, and the ground, be 
it a glue, an oil, or a varnish ground, thorough- 
ly exposed in the sun. An oil ground is the best 
for this purpose, and an absorbent ground 
should not be used unless it is first covered 
with a sufficient layer of finest copal, and of 
course dried thoroughly in the sun. "When 
your test canvas appears to be perfectly 
white, place a very large thumb tack near 
the edge of the stretcher and through the 
front of the canvas; press it close to the 
canvas to prevent the sunlight from reach- 
ing that part of the ground under it, then 
expose canvas again to the sunlight. After 
about ten days of sunlight exposure remove 
the thumb tack, and generally there will be 
found a circle of faint yellow where the 
13 183 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

light could not penetrate. If no yellowness 
is shown, then the canvas is a safe white; if 
there is any yellowness, then the thumb tack 
must be put in a new position and the proc- 
ess renewed until there is hardly any differ- 
ence in the color or tone of the white ground 
and the part that was under the thumb 
tack. 

Having your canvas, you divide it with 
very faint lines in even square or oblong 
spaces of about two and a half by three and a 
half inches, and these spaces are to be sep- 
arated by at least one-half inch all around. In 
other words, the square or oblong spaces are 
to receive the color to be tested, and no two col- 
ors should come in contact. It is best to have a 
chart or test canvas for each group, one for 
reds, one for blues, one for yellows, etc. It is 
not well to try to test a strong green in imme- 
diate proximity to a strong red say, a ver- 
milion for the eye is strangely influenced by 
these two colors, as the following story shows : 
A friend was painting a man's portrait, and 
184 



DURABLE COLORS 

during the progress of the work decided to 
change the background into a rather strong 
green. He had some fine Gobelin tapestry, 
representing a landscape, for the actual back- 
ground. Then he decided that the black 
clothes needed repainting, and when I saw the 
picture again, he asked my opinion. I asked in 
turn, " Do you see such a strong red cast (ob- 
viously madder) in the black of the clothes as 
you have painted them? " He said, " Yes." 
I who had come to the painting with a fresh 
eye, uninfluenced by the green, did not see 
the red cast in the black, as I told him. 

I could cite many instances of the peculiar 
influence of the conjunction of red and green, 
some of which were comical. I have no doubt 
much will be written on this subject in the 
future, and especially in connection with 
" color blindness " and railroad signals. I 
have seen this effect of green on the eye em- 
bodied in a landscape painting many times: 
where the sunlit green predominates in land- 
scapes, artists have painted red or violet shad- 
185 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

ows that were really gray, bluish, or even 
greenish, and the effect was false and inhar- 
monious; though the artist paints what he 
really sees, as a true color value, he does not 
realize that it is not a normal seeing, and at 
any rate is an untrue exaggeration. The pub- 
lic instantly know the contrast is false, for 
they are not under the influence of the green 
any length of time. Their eyes are not 
strained or perhaps tired, nor need they 
look at the green as intently as the artist 
had to. 

When the chart or charts are ready (it is 
best to make a number at once, to have them 
handy) the color to be tested should be care- 
fully and quickly applied with a perfectly 
clean brush to its square as evenly as possible. 
Then at once, underneath each color for which 
a clear space of white was left as indicated 
above, a memorandum must be made as small 
and legible as possible of the date, name of 
color, manufacturer, and whether with any 
extra oil or other ingredient, such as varnish, 
186 



megilp, etc. If two colors are mixed, as cad- 
mium and white, for instance, the memoran- 
dum must be made at once ; no matter how 
sure one may be of knowing and remembering, 
this memorandum must not be neglected. I 
had many days of ' ' brain cudgeling ' ' on one 
occasion because I failed to properly label a 
test, and only put down the first syllable of the 
name. 

On the chart as above described many ex- 
periments can be made that are usually tried 
on paintings, with the resultant creation of 
bad pictures. A fair test is to have the colors 
exposed to the full sunlight for about eight 
months (beginning with March) in an inclosed 
space that receives the sunlight for at least 
six hours each day, the test chart to be pro- 
tected from dust, dirt, and moisture. If the 
colors are good, they will get more clear and 
brighter, some become very brilliant, and of 
course as the oil is destroyed they get lighter 
in key, but this lightness is nothing at all like 
the fading out of a fugitive color. Some col- 
187 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

ors become much darker, some only a trifle 
BO, as, for instance, vermilion. Should it, how- 
ever, get very much darker, it is an impure 
manufacture or adulterated. A bad cadmium 
turns a distinct greenish tint, and a good cad- 
mium becomes more beautiful. The test should 
also be applied to the oils and varnishes that 
are to be used. Each artist can and should in 
this way test the colors that he is partial to 
and is in the habit of using. It is a clean way, 
does not require any appreciable time, and is 
a sure test. It will also teach him how beau- 
tiful some are, and in a way he never realized. 
I am quite sure in my own mind that the 
Masters tested every new batch, or newly dis- 
covered color, in this way with Nature 's chem- 
ist, the sun. No matter how good a name or 
certificate of character a color has, if it cannot 
stand this test, it should be rejected. On the 
other hand, if a color has a bad reputation, 
if it can stand this test, it may be used. If 
two colors do not agree, this method soon 
shows which is the weaker or the vicious. This 
188 



DURABLE COLORS 

method of testing does away with the great loss 
of time and labor of grinding and preparing 
colors in the studio, which otherwise would 
be a necessity as a protection against fraud 
or carelessness. 



189 



CHAPTER XIV 

RETOUCHING AND FINAL VAENISH 

BEFORE closing, it is necessary to return to 
the subject of varnish again. A retouching 
varnish seems sometimes necessary on account 
of the varying surface caused by unequal dry- 
ing of overlapping color. Modern artists are 
in the habit of using the very-quick-drying 
alcohol varnish. I regard it as a good prin- 
ciple to keep all vehicles and varnishes as much 
as possible out of the painting but oil. I know 
that the burning-out process is retarded, and 
sometimes stopped altogether, if the oil paint 
is under a varnish. We know that Titian 
used a varnish at " certain places," but I am 
strongly inclined to think it was only an oil 
slightly thickened in the sun on litharge, and 
then possibly thinned with turpentine. He 
190 



RETOUCHING AND FINAL VARNISH 

may have used it, too, as a glaze or veil. In 
regard to the final varnish, the court physician 
of Charles I of England, Dr. De Meyern, 
claims to have heard Rubens himself say, that 
an " oil varnish, only, should be used, as it is 
the only one that resists moisture ; and that he 
made it of fine linseed oil, much thickened in 
the sun on litharge." The final varnish, of 
course, should be very thoroughly " sun- 
burned." I have before stated, that even if 
we had a perfect description of the methods 
and material of Titian or Rubens we could not 
produce a Titian or a Rubens masterpiece, nor 
can we by the aid of the great sun, on a poorly 
constructed picture, make an Old Master of it. 
One recommendation I cannot resist making 
as strong as possible, for several reasons, and 

that is the use of a white palette that is 
The White . . mt. 

Palette impervious to oil. The first reason is 

that the tones to be mixed are much 

more easily distinguished, and hence a lesser 

strain on the eyes, and especially is this the 

case with all tones from the lights down. The 

191 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

second reason is that the dark, transparent 
glazes can only be properly judged on a white 
palette. The white palette loses some of its 
strong, glaring white with use, and so be- 
comes still more valuable by becoming nearer 
to dead coloring of flesh, but still much light- 
er and with no tint of red or yellow, and thus 
permitting an instantaneous judgment of the 
true character of a mixed or unmixed tint. It 
must be understood that the palette must be 
kept clean or its use as a white palette is Of 
course an illusion. The final reason for the use 
of a white palette is that it forces and leads the 
artist unconsciously to work in a higher key. 
Many fine painters besides Vibert have rec- 
ommended it. I have in my humble way used 
it many years, and found it more useful and 
attractive than the ordinary brown kind. A 
well-equipped painter should have at least 
three palettes of different sizes. 

I want to pay a tribute to the finest portrait 
painted in accordance with the Old Masters' 
principles by an American that I have ever 
192 



RETOUCHING AND FINAL VAENISH 

seen. It is the full-length portrait of Alexan- 
der Hamilton painted by John Trumbull, one 
time aide-de-camp to General Washing- 
ton - There are several Trumbull por- 
traits of Hamilton, but the one I refer to 
is that in the New York City Hall. It is as 
fine as any Van Dyck, and painted in Trum- 
bull 's best manner, after he had been abroad. 
Unfortunately, about fifty years ago some mis- 
creant cut the picture with a knife down the 
center from about halfway from the top. It 
has been relined several times, but of course 
this scar will always show more or less. It is 
such a wonderful picture that, outside of its 
historical interest on Hamilton's account, I 
think the picture should have a more secure 
home, like the New York Metropolitan Mu- 
seum, secure from neglect or further chance 
injury, and primarily where it is possible to 
see it well and conveniently, which is not the 
case now. The black-silk clothes are painted 
in first-class style, the background and dra- 
pery are beautiful in their transparency, the 
193 



THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS 

flesh silvery, the whole portrait painted in a 
broad, masterly manner. It is totally distinct 
from the dry, hard, untransparent manner in 
which he painted the Washington portraits. 
This portrait would hold its own if placed by 
the side of Van Dyck 's ' ' Duke of Richmond, ' ' 
now in the Metropolitan Museum. May there 
be many more like it. 

" Common sense " is necessary as one of 
the guides in all human affairs, and will be 
found very important in the production of 
fine, durable pictures. In Munich, in times 
past, an Italian colleague had the habit of 
painting mostly with his fingers. He did it 
because, he said, Titian painted thus. It is 
true that the Palma-Boschini description says, 
that " in finishing, Titian painted as much 
with his fingers as with his brushes." But 
my Italian friend failed to realize in the re- 
motest degree how Titian had prepared for 
that final stage of finishing! It is needless 
to say his painting did not at all suggest Ti- 
tian's technic. His mind happened to grasp 
194 



RETOUCHING AND FINAL VARNISH 

only the least important detail of a prin- 
ciple. 

All over Italy artists are still painting with 
their fingers. Many young art students are 
misled by this and other descriptions of tech- 
nic. Titian, as I have said, was fond of a red 
veil over the white canvas. In fact, he used 
red very freely, yet was always able to keep 
this risky color under control. The Bolognese 
school, seeing this red in Titian's pictures, im- 
mediately takes up the idea and exaggerates it 
beyond all reason. They thought to improve 
on Titian, and instead of veiling the white 
ground with a delicate, transparent red, they 
made a dense red ground of bole and painted 
on that, with the result that all work so painted 
was in time destroyed or has become uninter- 
esting. I have tried to indicate a principle in 
this book, and not lay down rules. Art is no 
longer art when it is shackled. As I have said 
before, the artist must always feel his liberty, 
but at the same time he must not keep on work- 
ing with his eyes closed to material facts and 
195 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

the results. Beginning with the white ground 
to the final touch, common sense dictates the 
use of one medium as far as possible, and that 
as we have seen should be the finest kind of oil. 
A solid, durable, homogeneous technic is only 
then possible. The sunlight must do the real 
finishing. 

I believe I have already made plain the 
necessity for a dead coloring for flesh. The 
artist may find it opposed to his temperament 
or habits, but he will have to protect his work 
against the effect of time in some way that has 
this principle for its basis. The reader must 
bear in mind, and this I wish to make em- 
phatic, that the sun cannot help a badly con- 
structed picture; as, for instance, when a 
light picture is over a very dark ground, or 
light, cold, colored parts over dark, warm un- 
derpaint. The sun will surely expose the dark. 
I believe that Titian on rare occasions had to 
change the pictorial composition of a picture 
even when he had nearly finished. The method 
he adopted to avoid the " coming through " 
196 



RETOUCHING AND FINAL VARNISH 

of discarded forms was, when the subject per- 
mitted, to paint a new, thick dead color over 
what he had, and then proceed as before. In 
this way there was hardly any likelihood of 
the " coming through " of any undesirable 
first painting. I have tried to use such words 
in describing my meaning as would be intelli- 
gible to the greatest number. "While even a 
moderately thick tone composed of, say, white, 
red, and black is in a sense transparent, and 
if used thinly is more so, it is very much more 
transparent if the white is left out. When 
semitransparent tones are spoken of, it means 
that a white and ochre, or other heavy-bodied, 
light-keyed color is a part of the tone de- 
scribed, and that it is applied quite thinly. 
A transparent veil is made of very much me- 
dium and a very small quantity of one or two 
colors of thin, dark body, like raw umber, raw 
sienna, ultramarine, burnt sienna, the mad- 
ders, bone brown, ivory black, etc. The colors 
having the smallest subdivision of particles, 
like, for instance, madders, bone brown, ivory 
197 



THE SECRET OP THE OLD MASTERS 

black, burnt terre verte, and ultramarine, etc., 
make the best veils or stains. 

I do not think this book has been written in 

vain. I believe I shall make many converts 

to the theories herein set forth even 

Conclusion 

from the ranks of those who have been 
painting pictures. I hope to reach, and ex- 
pect to influence for good, that great mass of 
new blood that is entering the ranks of the 
art workers every year. I sincerely hope, too, 
this work will be as the solid earth in their 
support as they first set foot on the threshold 
of fame. 



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